Washington — A small rebellion is boiling among Democratic leaders in Congress and across the nation. It is caused by growing concern that President Carter will lose in the fall, taking a lot of Democratic officeholders down with him.
The rebellion is not motivated by a pro- Kennedy sentiment. As one key Democrat puts it, the average Democratic politician is unhappy with the President and Senator Kennedy, seeing them both as being vulnerable to defeat by Ronald Reagan and likely to cause a lot of Democrats to be voted out.
Senate majority leader Robert Byrd surprised the White House by urging that the President debate Mr. Kennedy to "help our party shape its policies, help both the candidates sharpen and clarify their own thinking, and enable the American people to bette r understand where each of the candidates stands."
Senator Byrd's request comes at a time when many observers are saying that Mr. Carter has a lock on the nomination. For that reason, it puzzles some political experts here.* But others say that Mr. Byrd is showing the uneasiness of Democrats with a Carter-led ticket -- and the hopes of many Democratic officeholders that the nomination not be decided before the convention.
Says one political leader, "It really isn't ideological, even though some of those who are unhappy feel that Carter is too conservative. It's political. If they thought Carter was a winner, there would be no protest."
Gov. Hugh Carey of New York is a leading exponent of somehow displacing Mr. Carter as the nominee, although it seems clear that Senator Kennedy is the candidate he wants.* Governor Carey is calling for an open convention, where the delegates would be released from their pledges to candidates won during the primaries and caucuses.
The governor seems to reflect worries that stem particularly from big industrial state Democrats that Mr. Carter could lose New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, and California, among other big states, to Mr. Reagan.
Governor Carey and like-minded Democrats are convinced that Senator Kennedy would beat Mr. Reagan in those states -- thus saving the jobs of many Democratic officeholders who also will be on these tickets.
There is also a growing call among many Democrats for Vice-President Walter Mondale to -- somehow -- take the place of the President.
A Des Moines Register editorial calls on the President to stand aside in favor of Mr. Mondale.
The push for the open convention is predicated on the hope that someone other than the two front-runners, perhaps Mr. Mondale, would be chosen in an unpledged contest.
Responds Carter campaign chairman Robert Strauss:
"So, we tell all those campaign workers who have worked night and day to win these delegates that even though we have won the nomination we are going to call it off and give the other side a brand-new chance at the convention? It's the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard of."