Washington — Why does Sen. Edward M. Kennedy press on with his challenge to President Carter? One administration source told the Monitor that the President remarked bitterly the other day that he thought the senator wanted him to be beaten by Ronald Reagan -- thus bearing out the Kennedy prediction that a Carter ticket would lose in the fall.
Now the expectation in the White House, and among Democratic leaders generally, is that Senator Kennedy will come behind the President at some point.
In fact, most Democratic pros, such as House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. and Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona, say this public show of unity is inevitable.
Other veteran political observers say that Senator Kennedy in time will see what he is doing to the Democratic Party and to the prospects of its candidates all over the United States -- and will move toward unity. But many wonder whether he will make his move before he has done irreparable damage to the President and to the party.
There is growing restlessness and anxiety in high Democratic circles here over the feity nature of the continued Kennedy challenge.
"It's hurting us badly," one Democratic official said. "Every time he attacks the President, he is making it more difficult for Carter and Democratic candidates everywhere to win this year. He's doing the job of the Republicans for them."
Up to the end of the primary season, the Kennedy candidacy and criticism of the President were largely accepted by Democratic leaders as a necessary part of the nominating process. But no more.
"He's beginning to look like a spoiler," says one Democrat with longtime connections to the senator's political activities. "I really questioned whether he should get into this in the first place. And now I think he should get out quickly. If he continues on -- particularly with this tough, bitter, almost nasty approach to the President -- well, it will look like he's out to topple Carter and elect Reagan."
So while a Kennedy gesture of conciliation is still anticipated at the Democratic National Convention in August, his persistence in carrying his challenge that far with such vigor and abrasiveness was not expected by most party leaders. And it certainly is not welcomed.
Why does he press on? The answer is that the senator's motives, as interpreted by those close to him, are a mixture of idealism and resentment.
On the one hand, he is caught up in his desire to provide hope and a program for liberals who give first priority to humanitarian programs. And as he carries on the battle for the disadvantage, he echoes the theme of his late brothers, John and Robert.
Further, since so many Democrats in urban areas voted for him in the primaries, Mr. kennedy feels an obligation to give those people as much voice as possible at the convention.
On the other hand, it is no secret that the senator is angry at Mr. Carter. He is particularly upset over the Carter TV ads in a number of state primaries that raised questions about Mr. Kennedy's character.
The major barrier Senator Kennedy must clear before he can start on the road to reconciliation with the President is to somehow put aside this personal feeling about Mr. Carter.
"Kennedy will probably never really make up with Carter," says one Democratic leader who knows the senator well. "He may smile and shake hands with him at the convention, but this personal enmity will never go away -- or at least not very soon. And, of course, the President has this same kind of personal grudge against the senator."