The Carter-Kennedy battle is becoming increasingly bitter and divisive. One top-level administration official now says that if the struggle continues much longer it definitely will weaken the Democratic Party's ability to hold the presidency.
At the same time, Sen. edward M. Kennedy is insisting that he will carry his campaign right to the convention, no matter what happens in the upcoming primaries.
The senator, campaigning in Maine Feb. 5, uttered a stinging reply to the criticism he has received from Vice-President Walter Mondale: "You raise your voice in the Congress," Mr. Kennedy said, "and they'll whip out old Fritz Mondale and question your patriotism. That's the kind of campaign they're running."
Responding later in New Hampshire, Mr. Mondale said: "That's bunk. I have never attacked Senator Kennedy's patriotism -- and he knows it."
The Vice-President, as chief campaigner for the President, is stressing Mr. Carter's foreign affairs "backbone" in campaign speeches, citing his recent moves (the wheat embargo and Olympics boycott proposal) as examples.
Mr. Kennedy has responded by saying that if Mr. Carter has so much backbone, "Why doesn't he come out here and debate me?"
Of the growing bad feeling between the two camps, the aforementioned administration officials says, "I'm now getting a whiff of what may lie ahead. It's getting mean. It's getting nasty."
Right now most on-the-scene political analysts see Mr. Kennedy as the likely loser in both the Maine caucusing and the New Hampshire primary.
Earlier, the Massachusetts senator had said he would drop out of the race if he suffered defeats in his home region. But no longer. He is staying on to the end, he now is telling reporters traveling with him.
Will the senator's funding dry up if he loses these key contests? The answer is no, according to the latest Kennedy thinking. If the senator makes respectable showings in these primaries, this reasoning goes, the enthusiasm evoked by his recent speech on foreign and domestic policy will continue and cotributions will come in.
Mr. Kennedy, it seems, still believes that at some point Mr. Carter's popularity will plummet. When that happens, he wants to still be an active candidate, an alternative for Democratic voters.
Also, the senator says that his biggest hope for winning the nomination will come later when the primary campaign moves into the big industrial states.
Obviously, he sees himself as the likely winner in one of them -- his home state of Massachusetts.
The Kennedy strategy is to win most of following big states -- Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and California -- as well as Massachusetts.
As of now several polls show Mr. Carter well out in front of Mr. Kennedy in all of the states except Massachusetts.
The senator is in bad shape in Illinois, the state that he earlier had counted on as a place were he could begin to overtake Mr. Carter.
But, in any event, Mr. Kennedy is [Word Illegible] of a "to the bitter end" struggle.
And the Carter administration is saying that such a prolonged challenge will [Word Illegible] about a split that neither Mr. Carter nor Mr. Kennedy, whoever is the nominee will be able to heal.