A house now deeply divided against itself, but which, in four days, will stand strong: That is how many delegates to the Democratic convention see their fragmented party as what is expected to be a debate-torn meeting gets under way here this week.
A sense of party unity -- displayed soeffectively by the Republicans at their nominating convention last month -- crops up again and again in interviews with delegates from across the United States, even as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy continues his fight for the presidency to the very end.
"Unlike the Republicans," drawls Texas delegate Sandra Davis, "who fought their battles behind closed doors, Democrats will be fighting it out in the open , on prime-time TV."
"It's the Democratic way," says the Carter delegate. "We fight, but we come out united in the end."
Party debate -- and disagreement -- is good-naturedly seen as a fact of life at a Democratic convention. ("If we didn'tm have dissension, I'd be concerned," shrugs an Indiana delegate).
And despite recent polls that show President Carter with the lowest popularity rating of any chief executive in history, as well as surveys that show neither Democratic candidate faring will against Republican nominee Ronald Reagan, the mood here, on the surface at least, is far from downbeat.
Polls, many delegates say, can change -- just as they did four years ago when the tables were turned and Jimmy Carter led incumbent Gerald Ford by well over 30 percent, a healthy spread that tightened to a close race by Election Day.
They also say they see hope in the Democrats' traditional loyalty to the party, and what they see as a common desire among party regulars to thwart Ronald Reagan's rapidly accelerating drive to the White House.
"Whatever differences as have [within the party] are about as big as a mustard seed, when you compare the Republican platform to the Democratic platform, and the Republican nominee to the Democratic nominee," says Frank Moore, assistant to the President for congressional relations.
Still, there is a reserve here expressed by many delegates, a wait-and-see attitude about what the week will bring. The undercurrent of concern is found among both Carter and Kennedy supporters, many of whom concede that if the election were held today, the Republicans would win -- and who also admit that even in November, the Democrats may still be edged out.
"I think we'll have a tough time winning the presidency, whoever the nominees is," says Carolyn Wallace, a Kennedy delegate from California. "Anything could happen."
Privately, the outlook among Carter strategists is said to be even more distressed.
"There's no good news," says one former Carter campaign staffer who remains in close touch with the campaign. "The only good news is that people still think hehs a nive guy. But that doesn't elect a president."