First there was the 10 minute Kennedy steamroll. Then the 45-minute Carter pep rally. And since last night was the first time that the two men have appeared at the same function since Sen. Edward Kennedy's announcement earlier this week that he was considering running for President Carter's job, it could have been dubbed the dance of the near-candidates.

Right after Kennedy left the Congressional Hispanic Caucus dinner and disappeared into a sky-blue Le Mans, Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.) zeroed in on the Kennedy appeal: "In any Hispanic home in the country, there is a picture of Jesus Christ and a picture of JFK," he said. Cesar Chavez, the gray eminence of the Hispanic movement, considered the outcome of a Kennedy-Carter contest and concluded, "It's too early."

Kennedy barnstormed into the predinner reception at the Washington Hilton Hotel flanked by the boom microphones and paraphernalia of the press. Two hundred people lined up to applaud him. Because of the media crush, Kennedy spoke to hardly any Hispanics but managed to wave at a few familiar faces.

Two hours later, the Latin band stopped playing and a tape of "Hail to the Chief" heralded the arrival of President and Mrs. Carter and Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff. Initial applause for the president was merely polite, but during his speech he was applauded several times, especially on issues of immigration and the census. He also provoked some angry shouts from a couple of men when he mentioned the still-controversial release from prison of four Puerto Rican nationalists last week.

After the speech and a warm standing ovation, Carter announced he was staying for the entertainment. But the dias was immediately crowded four deep with autograph seekers and hand shakers and the Carters' extra 10 minutes was spent posing enthusiastically for pictures and talking.

For his speech, Carter didn't immediately receive high marks. Eugene Rodriguez, an air traffic controller at La Guardia Airport who was getting Rosalynn Carter's autograph "to prove to my wife I was here," said, "I liked some parts and didn't like others. I liked the 'liberty and justice for all' part, but when he told us what kind of programs he had instituted for Hispanics, I thought he was catering to our vote power."

In the crowd of 1,000 people, a strong pro-Kennedy sentiment dominated the cocktail hour, but a strong wait-and-see attitude vied with sharp criticism of Carter on his relationship with the Hispanic Americans.

As for their political appeal, most of the non-administration Hispanics exhibited a sizable dose of cynicism "Carter was here for the pitch," said Jorge Corralejo of the National Association of Farm Workers. "A lot of what he had to say was baseless and unfounded."

Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, whose last two conventions in Washington, Kennedy -- but not Carter -- has attended, said, "Carter has done well in the area of appointments and increased access. But he hasn't lived up to the total expectations of his campaign. And I question his personal sincerity. This is the first time he has attended a major Hispanic function and it's awfully late."

Tim Kraft, the president's campaign manager, countered that the gathering "may be the largest Hispanic group, but I'm sure it's not the first."

Graciela Olivarez, the director of the Community Services Administration and a Carter appointee, said the Kennedy appeal among Hispanics was based "on the fact that he is Catholic, on the fact that he is from a family with two martyrs and that he is liberal. Even though most Hispanics are conservative, they like his stand."

All the wooing of the brown vote, and the strategy-planning by the Hispanic leaders, underscored the growing importance of America's estimated 20 million Spanish-speaking residents. Though there are only four Hispanics in Congress (of which only three vote and only two attended the dinner), the Caucus managed to attract some important supporters among the 1,000 guests: House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, a Kennedy ally, Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, former Transportation secretary, Brock Adams, several congressmen, New York City's former deputy mayor Herman Badillo, local labor leader J. C. Turner and Sam Brown, head of ACTION.

Energetically moving through the crowd were Carter campaign manager Tim Kraft and Jack Watson, a top political adviser. Also present were three new Hispanic appointees. Estevan Torres, former U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, now a White House aide, Albelardo Valdez, the new chief of protocol, and Edward Hidalgo, the new secretary of the Navy. Both the Valdez and Hidalgo appointments, which were made yesterday, were cheered wildly.

When Carter began to talk of the released Puerto Rican nationalists, he received strong applause. Yet when he said, "I'll tell you why," there were shouts of "why, why?" Explaining they were "in prison for criminal conduct, not political views," he was interrupted by shouts of "Wrong, wrong." But, as the dissension caused loud reaction in the room, Carter's voice became stronger and his tone sharper. "Our country is strong enough to honor freedom of speech," said Carter. After his speech, Carter leaned over the stage to shake hands, and he gave a military salute to the crowd.

They were still reaching for his hand as he left.