Washington — Republicans and Democrats appear headed in opposite directions in coming days on the issue of delegate "loyalty" at their conventions. The Republican National Committee's rules group next week is expected to recommend dropping enforcement of "binding" -- compelling delegates to vote for the presidential candidate they linked up with in state primaries or caucuses -- at the GOP national convention in Detroit.
But at the Democratic National Committee's rules session here next week, President Carter's forces will push for a rule that would allow candidates to oust and replace any delegates whose loyalty might be perceived as wavering.
Ronald Reagan's commanding strength at the GOP convention makes any chance of a 1980 challenge remote, so the Republicans feel they can move easily toward their preferred stance -- leaving it up to state delegations and the delegate's own conscience to maintain commitment to candidates.
For the Democrats, however, the loyalty issue is entangled in the Carter-Kennedy struggle for the nomination. Both sides acknowledge that the President has the delegate strength to prevail -- a 2-to-1 edge in the rules committee and in convention delegates.
Buy many Democrats see the likely acceptance of the "binding" rule at the convention as more crucial in subsequent years than in 1980. They say it would concentrate power in a candidate's hands in ways not intended when the Democrats began their reforms a decade ago to shed boss rule.
Originally, they say, the Democratic Party reforms began when many rank-and-file Democrats were outraged that Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey could capture the nomination in 1968 without entering primaries. Emotionally, the reform movement was linked to sense of futility at dissuading the White House from support of the Vietnam war. So a series of reforms, including proportional splitting of state delegations by primary or caucus votes, were proposed.
Parts of the latest proposed Democratic Party reforms, contained in the 1977 Winograd Commission report, were inserted in the national committee's "call" document for this summer's convention. One rule would bind delegates on the first ballot to the candidate who approved them initially to represent them. And it would allow candidates to remove delegates who seek "to violate the rule."
Mr. Carter's people contend the "call" constitutes the rule at the August convention. The Kennedy people say the Winograd proposals have not been adopted by the convention itself -- the final authority on rules for the party. The practical outcome, both sides predict, will be a vote along partisan Carter-Kennedy lines. The rules committee will report Carter-majority and Kennedy-minority reports to the convention, where a vote after debate will likely back the Carter position.
At a breakfast with reporters, Democratic national chairman John White, a staunch Carter backer, called the delegate loyalty issue "an inside game of one-upmanship."
This reflects a Carter strategy to play down the subject publicly while pressing hard in committee. The President's people are concerned that any appearance of wavering on the binding rule or loyalty test could be construed as a successful attempt to unseat Mr. Carter, or an opening wedge in that direction , rather than a decision on the rules' merits.
The Kennedy forces find themselves locked in by their earlier ploy of suggesting a rules change could open the way for a flow of delegates from Mr. Carter to Mr. Kennedy, or to another candidate.
"The purpose of the reforms was to increase participation in the nomination," says Richard Stearns, Kennedy delegate strategist in 1980 who performed the same task for Sen. George McGovern in 1972. "The purpose was not to reduce the number of bosses from 40 to 2 -- the candidates themselves. Now [Carter forces] are trying to eject persons who might not be 100 percent loyal, up and down, on issues and not just on the nomination."
Other Democrats observe that no objective tests are specified for determining a delegate's loyalty, and that the rule conflicts with another Democratic Party charter rule protecting a delegate's right to vote for the candidate of his "expressed preference."
In sharp contrast, Reagan campaign lawyer Loren Smith sees no such confusion and conflict ahead for the Republicans on the delegate-loyalty issue. He says, the rule binding delegates "is unenforceable."