Washington — This is a tale of two worlds -- Washington and the rest of the country. Monitor conversations with political leaders in all regions, except in Washington, have resulted in this consensus:
The Democratic race is finished. President Carter is clearly the winner. In fact, the continued Kennedy-Carter contest is getting a bit boring -- it is time to begin looking at the fall election against Ronald Reagan.
But here in Washington, there still is much talk that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will somehow take the nomination away from Mr. Carter. Or, short of that, that the Democratic delegates, believing that the President cannot possibly beat Mr. Reagan, will turn to someone else to lead them -- perhaps Vice-President Walter Mondale or Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie.
It is here, too, that Senator Kennedy's continuing demand that the President debate him is taken most seriously. In fact, Senate majority leader Robert C. Byrd seems quite serious in urging that debates take place.
Those who support debate speak about it in terms of some kind of a higher morality: that the President owes it to the nation to debate with Senator Kennedy so that the public can better understand the issues.
Yet most of those who make this case are unhappy with Mr. Carter's administration and upset at the prospect of Mr. Reagan winning the presidency.
Perhaps Senator Byrd is not pro- Kennedy. In fact, there is some evidence he is pro-Carter. Says one top Carter aide: "Byrd supports Carter. But he's carrying water for Kennedy in this instance. Perhaps he's piqued because Carter didn't consult him on the rescue effort."
Some observers here speculate that just as Senator Byrd's prodding seemed to help get the President out of the Rose Garden, the latest Byrd proposal will be heeded -- and perhaps followed -- by the President.
But one high-level Democratic politician close to Mr. Carter says, "Why should the President take such a political chance when he has this thing locked up?"
"Of course," he added, "no one really knows what the President is going to do on a thing like this except the President himself. But I don't think there is a chance in the world that he would debate Kennedy. I think he'll wait and debate Reagan."
One Washington pundit says of the proposed debate: "If he [Mr. Carter] is smart, he will just disregard it. It was a valid proposal back in January and February. But not now. It is so obvious that Kennedy is beaten."
Before Iran's capture of the hostages, the President agreed to debate the Massachusetts senator. The decision surprised some of Mr. Carter's advisers. They believed the President's record would make him a fixed target and vulnerable to a challenger who could be more flexible on issues.
But Mr. Carter trailed the senator in the polls then. President Carter doubtless saw in the debates an opportunity to catch Senator Kennedy.
Then the President, heavily involved in Iran and Afghanistan, canceled out on the first debate that was scheduled in Des Moines.