In Political Washington, that eccentric colony of campaign recidivists, there is division and consensus over Sen. Edward Kennedy and the 1988 presidential race.

The division is over whether the Massachusetts Democrat will seek the presidency. Kennedy's most unexpected support for granting the president broad powers to veto individual items in an appropriations bill, which was seen by political scouts as a daring and/or expeditious move, was positively explained by one Democrat: "Kennedy is one of the very few in our party who believe the Democrats will control the White House again and that the line-item veto could make a strong Democratic president more effective."

Although nobody in Political Washington seems to know for sure whether Kennedy will be a 1988candidate, just about everybody (including many who were convinced of the inevitability of Kennedy's 1980 nomination) agrees that he has no chance of being elected president in 1988, or probably anytime else. That could turn out to be the best political news imaginable for Kennedy supporters.

Of course, Political Washington has been wrong before. For example, the 1980 consensus held (until it was repealed that Nov. 4) that Jimmy Carter's certain route to reelection lay in the Republicans' succumbing to a collective death wish and passing over the electable Howard Baker or George Bush and nominating an aging ex- Borax pitchman from the right lane of California politics.

As Ronald Reagan demonstrated so conclusively in 1980, lowered expectations about the abilities and prospects of a candidate who has been written off by the smart money can be a real advantage for the candidate who exceeds those expectations. The Expectations Game: Because, in the judgment of Political Washington, Kennedy does not have a chance of winning the presidency in 1988, he will not be the first choice of the Democratic institution groups -- labor, environmentalists, feminists, ethnics, teachers -- that endorse candidates, a prospect that could help liberate Kennedy totally from the caucus-coddling and giant pandering that have so helped to sink his party and its nominees. The political equation is simple: Because it is agreed by those who know that Kennedy doesn't have a chance, Kennedy's chances are now improved.

Independence: The institutions and individuals of Political Washington are not pernicious or unpatriotic. But like the Congregationalists in James Michener's "Hawaii," many of them came to do good and have stayed to do very, very well. For Political Washington, an imperfect status quo is almost always preferable to any uncertain future.

The ideal presidential candidate for these folks is one who "represents" their interests, a view that puts them at odds with American voters who prefer their political leaders with ideas and independence. The question will be: Does Kennedy have the wit and the will to challenge the Democratic and Washington status quo? Claiming credit for airline deregulation would not be enough, especially when it's more expensive for a devoted daughter in South Bend to fly home to Sioux City for Mother's Day than it is for a TV producer to jet from LA to New York for a premiere.

Of course, unique problems remain with a Kennedy candidacy. The "character" issue -- the senator's troubled personal life and Chappaquiddick, which one Lyndon Johnson aide called "The Fall of the House of Kennedy" -- must still be addressed. Edward Kennedy, in the view of some politicians, has never done adequate penance for his behavior in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, behavior that he, himself, termed "indefensible."

One astute Democrat who does not count Kennedy out for 1988 believes that "he must revisit the two failures of his 1980 campaign: Chappaquiddick and the Roger Mudd interview," where the senator stumbled so badly when asked why he wanted to be president.

Political Washington may turn out to be right about Edward Kennedy and 1988. But right now, liberated from elevated expectations and presented with a unique opportunity to define himself, his vision and his independence to the Sun Belt as well as to the Snow Belt, Edward Kennedy has a chance he didn't have before.