Sen. Edward M. Kennedy can take some comfort out of the election that politically devastated so many of his Democratic colleagues. He seems well positioned to become the de facto head of the party -- and to be its 1984 presidential candidate.
In fact, the Massachusetts senator is already running.
Mr. Kennedy's most apparent challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination is Vice-President Walter F. Mondale. But some Democratic leaders are asking today:
Will Mr. Mondale be able to separate himself from the Carter administration, particularly after being seen as virtually a junior partner of the President?
Other Democratic Party powers floundered in the election -- Sens. Frank Church of Idaho, Birch Bayh of Indiana, and John C. Culver of Iowa lost their seats. They might have made a run for the presidency had they survived.
But they went down, along with Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the party's 1972 presidential candidate, who had remained influential among liberal Democrats.
And with Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia forced to relinquish his post as majority leader to become minority leader, Kennedy may be on the rise among his Senate colleagues.
All this indicates the weakness of the Democratic Party:
* Kennedy himself has lost his chairmanship of the prestigeous Senate Judiciary Committee, a spot from which he had hoped to launch another bod for the presidency. And a result of his lost position Kennedy actually is less able to exercise real power in the new Congress.
* Kennedy's liberal philosophy appears to appeal to only a minority of the nation's voters. That seems to be one verdict of this election.
The question arises, then, could Kennedy four years from now bring the Democrats back to the White House?
Or is it possible that a Democratic conservative, perhaps a Southern governor or senator, might be able to effectively challenge and beat Kennedy because a liberal Democrat simply doesn't have a chance for the presidency.?
* And then, there is Kennedy himself -- the question remains: What is his personal potential as a presidential candidate?
Kennedy people believe - and this judgments is said to be shared by the senator himself -- that Kennedy pretty much put the so-called "character issue" to rest during the last year of campaigning.
They believe that by continuing to respond to questions on Chappaquiddick the senator finally eased the anxieties of those who were opposing him because of this tragic incident.
And they further feel that in another presidential campaign the news media would not concentrate so much on Chappaquiddick-related stories.
But some Democratic leaders, particularly at the state level, still wonder whether Kennedy can ever break out of what many call his "moral issue" problem.
They point to polls which seemed to indicate that a substantial, hard core of voters -- Democrats as well as Republicans -- would never vote for Kennedy simple because of Chappaquiddick.
Democratic leaders with doubts about a Kennedy candidacy also question whethe he would be ablt to unite the Democratic Party after his aggressive challenge of President Carter.
Said one Southern leader: "The South will never forgive Kennedy for what he did to Carter -- even though many Southerners, in the end, gave up on Carter and voted for Reagan."
The election leaves the Democrats with few who might blossom as "new face" presidential candidates four years from now.
Gov. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia may have retained that luster. His narrow win and his big campaign spending may have done little to enhance his presidential prospects. But Mr. Rockefeller has moved toward the center recently -- perhaps enough to appeal to what appears to be a conservative national trend.
Colorado's Sen. Gary Hart, another liberal who has moved toward the middle of the road, did no help himself much in last Tuesday's election. Senator Hart had been looked upon as possessing the kind of charisma the Democrats might be looking for. But his razor-thin win made him look more like a survivor than a "comer."