The Democratic Party, bloodied and confused, yesterday began sorting through the devastation of its worst defeat since Dwight Eisenhower's landslide in 1952.

The carcases of the old liberals who had provided the intellectual soul of the party for so many years were everywhere. In South Dakota, there was McGovern. In Iowa, Culver. In Washington, Magnuson. In Wisconsin, Nelson. The list went on and on.

Basically, the New Deal died yesterday," said Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts who had spent much of yesterday offering words of condolence to his fallen colleagues.

"The election tells me one thing. That is that any public figure who is a liberal Democrat had two choices: find another job or change his philosophy," said Ohio Democratic chairman Paul Tipps.

Everywhere there was a collective licking of wounds, talk of regrouping and reassessment. Many of the party's warhorses had expected defeat, but nothing of the magnitude that occured.

Politics, of course, is an unending game for those who play it for keeps. Scarcely does one final whistle blow before the players start the next contest. And so it was yesterday.

Democratic chairman John White, a Carter loyalist to the core, began making a series of strategic phone calls to build bridges to the constituency groups Carter as president had so alienated -- Democratic on Capitol Hill and leaders of organized labor. White, of course, is a practical man. His term as party chairman ends soon, and he has told allies that he would like to stay on for awhile anyway.

There also was the inevitable talk of 1984, and expected battle for the control of the party. Two names came first in every conversation: Walter Mondale and Edward Kennedy.

Both made it clear they are looking toward the future. In making his concession speech Tuesday night in Minneapolis, Mondale recalled what Hubert Humphrey had told him as he prepared a similar address after he lost the presidential election in 1968.

"It's got to be done right because it's the opening speech of my next campaign," the vice president said.

A Mondale spokesman said that after a vacation in Puerto Rico with his wife, the vice president intends to continue speak out on public issues, and be active in party affairs.

So does Kennedy. He called a press conference to let everyone know. "This is a difficult time for the Democratic Party . . .. We now face the challenge of working together to rebuild our party's strength," said the Massachusetts senator, whom Carter resoundingly defeated in the Democratic primaries. "I am confident that we will meet this challenge with compassion and commitment, with innovation and inspiration, and in ways true to the historic principles of our party."

What Carter's future role will be was less clear. As the defeated president, he will remain the titular head of the party. But neither he nor his closest politicial aides have ever shown great deal of interest in party affairs.

Carter may be treated as leper by many party leaders, who blamed his failure for Tuesday's massacre at the polls. Asked about his intentions during an interview yesterday, the president said, "I don't know yet. I really haven't thought about it."

There is little question that Mondale would like to make a run in 1984. But the vice president, who traveled 220,000 miles campaigning for Carter's reelection, may share some of the blame for the loss also. On the last day of the campaign, when Mondale must have sened the coming defeat, he was asked about a Kennedy-Mondale fight. "Oh, come on," he said exasperatedly. "One game at a time."

In Tuesday's defeats, three of the better-known Democratic senators survived the devastation -- John Glenn of Ohio, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and Gary Hart of Colorado.

"I figure Dale Bumpers and Gary Hart are dreaming of the White House this morning," said Carol Tucker Foreman, assistant Secretary of Agriculture for consumer affairs. "Jerry Brown [the California governor] obviously is dreaming this morning too. Surely those three, and hopefully others, are out there planning what kind of organization they're going to need that will lead the Democrats out of the wilderness and put them in the White House.

"I think the party's devastated, and I'm not altogether troubled by it," she continued. "The party has been steadily fragmenting. It's the same position the GOP was in in 1964. They started building then and it culminated in what happened Tuesday. The Democrats will have to do it now, and it will be . . . a lot messier."

The old coalition that has given the party its strength since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt completely shattered in Tuesday's election. It lost the blue-collar vote, almost half the Jewish vote, almost half the Catholic vote, and the Southern vote.

Black leaders were understandably uneasy yesterday. "We were the only members of the traditional Democratic coalition who remained true to the coalition. . . . Everybody else abandoned it," said Urban League president Vernon Jordan.

Calls for a rethinking of the party's liberal philosophy were rampant. "The right wing is really outworking, outthinking and outspending us and we've got to reassess our positions, policies and programs," said United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser. "But nothing will change us unless we change the basic structure -- the way we select our leaders to build in strong political parties with accountablity and responsibility."

Terry Herndon, executive director of the National Education Association which worked long and hard for Carter, said Democrats should study "how the conservative machinery struck a chord" with the country.

Colorado Sen. Hart, who may benefit from some of this uneasiness as a 1980 survivor, said, "Voters are saying come up with some new ideas. The old slogans and solutions aren't selling any more. Traditional liberalism to solving the domestic agenda are not, at least for this period of time, are not marketable."

Republicans, it should be remembered, went through this same kind of reassessment only six years ago after they were decimated in the wake of the Watergate scandals.