Prominent Democrats -- friends and critics alike -- generally anticipate that Edward M. Kennedy will try again for the US presidency, probably in 1984. The veteran US senator from Massachusetts, however, has no intention of encouraging such speculation at this point. Considerably more certain is his determination to seek reelection next year in what could be his toughest campaign.
While prospects for a political upset appear remote in 1982, the senator seems certain to be up against more formidable opposition than he has faced since he first won his seat in 1962.
Outside pressure for Mr. Kennedy's ouster at the polls will likely be led by the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), which claimed credit for toppling some of the nation's most liberal lawmakers with low-road, high-cost media blitzes in 1980.
Elated over the defeat of such liberal Democrats as Sens. Birch Bayh of Indiana, Frank Church of Idaho, and George McGovern of South Dakota, leaders of the politically farright group have placed Senator Kennedy at the top their 1982 hit list.
Such an effort, involving perhaps substantial out-of-state campaign dollars, even if unsuccessful in unseating Mr. Kennedy, could perhaps weaken him politically enough to prevent a future try for the White House.
Anything short of a decisive senatorial reelection in 1982 would, it is generally agreed by Kennedy watchers here in New England, make it harder to go national again in quest of his party's presidential nomination.
Massachusetts observers, including some Kennedy critics, say they doubt his pending divorce from his wife, Joan, will have much impact, if any, on his senatorial campaign. They suggest that, although the Kennedys are Roman Catholics and their church does not condone divorce, the senator would not be likely to lose many votes, even among members of that faith.
Political opponents are not expected to attempt exploitation of the matter.
In 1978 Massachusetts voters denied reelection to Republican Sen. Edward W. Brooke, whose difficulties with his divorced wife over finances were highly publicized just prior to the campaign. None of Mr. Brooke's opponents in the election referred to the matter, but it was nevertheless thought to have contributed to his defeat.
There is no hint that the Kennedy settlement will be anything less than amicable.
Some Kennedy loyalists note that there now is precedent for a divorced occupant of the White House -- Ronald Reagan.
But Kennedy supporters who are Roman Catholics do suggest that he could face loss of at least some Catholic support were he to remarry, since that church does not recognize second marriages while the former spouse is living.
"An invalid second marriage would definitely hurt him," holds Robert Philbrick, one of the prime movers in the 1979 draft-Kennedy movement in New Hampshire primary. The Milford, Mass., Democrat says he would find it difficult to support the senator were he to remarry.
Economic issues will, in Mr. Phibrick's opinion, have an important bearing on the senator's possible plans for the White House. "If things are going well and inflation is stopped during the next couple years under President Reagan, the Democratic nomionation won't be worth five cents," he asserts.
The kennedy 1982 reelection campaign, which begins in less than a year, comes at a time when Massachusetts is experiencing a wave of fiscal conservatism. Liberal spending programs in the state are being cut under the voter-approved Proposition 2 1/2, which rolls back local property taxes substantially.
Whether the antitax mood will gnaw away the popularity of the Kennedy clan in Massachusetts may depend on whether the senator shifts his stance on government spending.
Other liberal positions taken by Kennedy, such as support for government-funded abortions for poor women, could come under campaign attack by NCPAC and others.
Also potentially eroding his strength is the loss of several hundred patronage and senatorial staff jobs that were at his disposal when the US Senate was controlled by Democrats.
Also, with Republicans firmly entrenched in Washington, no longer can Kennedy ensure new federal spending for his heavily Democratic state