Democrats are feeding on themselves this week.

It's not an unprecedented occurrence, but it hasn't been seen for a couple of years.The minority party has a propensity for self-destruction every so often - kind of like lemmings drowning themselves in the sea.

And the latest Democratic bloodletting makes about as much sense.

On the surface, here's what's happened:

AFL-CIO state leader Eddie Mayne opposed local attorney Peter Billing Jr.'s candidacy for state Democratic chairman. Mayne seized upon Billings' appearance - at the request of Rep. Wayne Owens - before a group of non-union Eastern Airline workers as a "blatant attempt" to showcase Billings to the gullible media.

Owens says he's pushing Billings to seek the chairmanship - although Billings hasn't yet formally announced and only says he's leaning toward running.

Now here's what I'm told is going on behind the scenes:

Mayne and current Democratic Chairman Randy Horiuchi want a major say in who the next chairman is. (Mayne denies this, saying now he doesn't care who the chairman is and is only "outraged" at Billings' use of the poor, misused Eastern Airline employees, to whom Billings gave some free legal advice.)

First Horiuchi seized upon Dale Carpenter, Scott Matheson's economic development guru and Owens' lieutenant governor candidate in 1984, and asked him to run. But Carpenter said no.

Then Horiuchi favored South Salt Lake Mayor Jim Davis, Ted Wilson's lieutenant governor partner in 1988. Davis was going to do it, he says, but over last weekend decided not to.

Davis says it made no difference to him if Matheson, Owens and other party leaders favored Billings. But that's hard to believe. Those big-name politicians can still harm or help a fledging political career - and Davis is very interested in future political office.

Horiuchi says he may have to seek a third two-year term if Billings is the only viable candidate. But he adds he's still trying to convince "several really qualified, great people to run."

(And get this, conservative Merrill Cook says an independent third party is even more possible if Billings is elected Democratic chairman: "We could get labor to join us" if Billings' alienates labor leaders. Cook wants Horiuchi to be re-elected.)

But Billings remained a problem. How does one force Billings from the race to clear the field for someone acceptable to Mayne or Horiuchi?

One way is to lock a large bloc of Democratic delegate votes against him - even before he announces - and hope he'll see the error of his ways and get out of the race.

Mayne was working toward that end before the gullible media blew the lid off. He had prepared a brochure - "Hey, it was only a rough draft and hasn't even been approved by my board," says Mayne - that likened Billings to Eastern's Frank Lorenzo - the hated owner and renowned union-buster.

The brochure - whatever form it finally takes - will be distributed to the 346 Democratic delegates who belong to labor unions.

Horiuchi estimates that about half of the 2,500 delegates will show up at the June 24 convention to vote for new officers. He may be a bit optimistic there. If only 800-1,000 appear, and labor rallies all of its delegates, then the labor bloc is formidable - more than a third of all delegates.

Former Democratic Gov. Calvin Rampton put it succinctly: "In recent years there's been a sort of lack of interest (in the Democratic Party) and labor has filled a gap and (now) exercises influence disproportionate to its voting strength (in the public). This has to stop."

Traditionally, leading officeholders and former officeholders have been major players in picking party chairmen - both in the Republican and Democratic parties.

Owens' choice of Billings doesn't ensure anything, the congressman is quick to point out, however. "Both Cal and Scott when they were governors favored a chairman candidate who was challenged and who lost. I'm not trying to force my choice on anyone. But an anti-candidate posture by labor will be very, very hurtful to the party."

In the end, all this will blow over. After the chairman is picked, whoever he or she is, labor, Owens and other Democrats will kiss and make up. They always do.

After all, what's Mayne going to do? Turn to those pillars of union support Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch to help Utah union workers?