Washington — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's to-the-bitter-end candidacy already may be irreparably splitting the Democratic Party, making it virtually impossible for President Carter to be re-elected.
Over breakfast on April 10 Kennedy spokesman and former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick J. Lucey outlined a projected Kennedy campaign that will likely carry the "Carter is unelectable" theme right into the convention.
"Even if we lose in Pennsylvania, which I expect we will win, we will keep on going," Mr. Lucey said. "Even if we have only 25 percent of the delegates, we will be there."
The current rationale in the Kennedy camp for taking the fight to the convention floor relies on the hope that delegates can be pried from the President there. Kennedy aides theorize that Mr. Carter's rating in te polls could be so dismal by convention time that a delegate stampede to the senator could take place.
Given the unlikelihood of this scenario, something Kennedy aides admit in private, the opinion growing among observers here is that Senator Kennedy is not running for president -- he is leading a movement directed at discrediting Mr. Carter.
More and more Washington politicians and observers are saying that there will be no road back from such a divisive position, even if Mr. Carter tries hard for reconciliation, and even if Senator Kennedy gives the President his token endorsement.
This is in the face of on-the-record statements by both the President and Senator Kennedy indicating that each would support -- though reluctantly -- the other if he won the nomination.
And Carter campaign strategist Robert Strauss is talking about moving toward some kind of reconciliation with Kennedy liberals if, as he anticipates, Mr. Carter is the winner.
"I think I've proven that I'm pretty good at this sort of thing," Mr. Strauss told reporters at breakfast this week. But the task may be too difficult even for such a persuasive politician as Mr. Strauss.
The political surmising in this city now leans toward the view that many Democratic liberals, who are in the majority in the North, simply will not vote at all in the fall if the choice is Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan -- or that they might move over to John B. Anderson if he is an alternative.
Some observers recall the post-1968 election research that showed most supporters of liberal Sen. Eugene McCarthy either didn't vote or voted for Richard Nixon.
So it is possible that some liberals might even vote for Mr. Reagan, unlikely as that might seem, as a protest against the President and his policies.
An alternate Kennedy rationale for staying in the race to the last primary, as explained by Mr. Lucey, is to have enough delegate strength to give the Democratic platform a liberal tilt.
With the President likely to be willing to give up some platform points in a party-unity gesture, there seems little likelihood of a Kennedy delegates walkout at the convention. As observers here see it, no Northern-delegate equivalent of the "dixiecrat" walkout years ago seems imminent.
But what is though possible, if not probable, is that the ideological split in the party will be so deep and bitter by convention time that it won't be papered over by conciliation gestures and accommodations.
Instead, the liberal defection is perceived as already under way -- with the never-give-up Kennedy campaign helping to keep it alive and increase its size and intensity.