The tall blond woman standing in the aisle of the charter plane is asked what she thinks of Rosalynn Carter's accusation that her husband had "discovered" women's issues only "because it was politically expedient to appeal to women's groups.

Joan Kennedy looks directly and steadily at the reporter. "I don't see how anyone could say Ted Kennedy is that way about women. After all, he's got a strong mother, strong sisters . . ." A few years ago, Joan Kennedy might have ended her litany of female strengths right there, with the Kennedy women. But now, touching the reporter's arm for emphasis, she continues "and and extremely strong wife."

She continues, "and an extremely strong daughter [Kara, 20]. The women he is surrounded by most closely are all ladies who have let him know how they feel about things." She adds pointedly, "And he listens."

Throughout a two-day campaign swing this week that included a trip to her grandmother's farm and fund-raising dinners in Miami and Boston, Joan Kennedy is sending her consistent, constant message -- that she is alive and well and in this campaign of her own accord.

Gone are the shadows of sorrow and the puffiness of face that for the past few years had altered her once-striking good looks. At 43, her ash-blond hair cut shorter and in a neat pageboy, and wearing less makeup than in the past, she looks fresh-faced. There are only occasional signs of nervousness: licking her lips, running a thumb over a pink, manicured fingernail.

She faced the bizarre gauntlet of the curious examining her and the senator as if they were some prized species in a marriage zoo: What are they like together? How is she taking all this? She shook hands and looked people in the eye and let them hug her. Her presence created a strange phenomenon in the cynical world of political staffers and press. They were unabashedly rooting for her.

Flying back to Washington from Florida at midnight, the campaign plane was filled with a crowd slap-happy with fatigue and booze. Joan Kennedy moved through, talking with everyone, seeming at ease as the others drank, and said to one reporter in happy wonderment, "Why does everyone say they're so happy to see me on board?"

This week had to happen sooner or later. In many ways Sen. Kennedy was damned if he did and damned if he didn't bring his wife into the campaign.

If she had chosen to stay home there would have been continued whispered speculation about the state of their marriage. On the other hand, if she joined the campaign, he was certain to be accused of exploiting a woman who has battled alcoholism and emotional problems and has chosen to live away from the limelight in Boston for two years.

But it was Joan's decision. "The best answer I have to alcoholism is to just let people see me, to go out and campaign for Ted Kennedy. The best answer for that is me."

And so she and her husband held impromptu his and her mini-press conferences on the plane.Loud guffaws and cigar smoke came from his corner; pleasant chitchat from hers.

Her easy accessibility is in contrast to Rosalynn Carter, who often eyes questioners coolly and can travel for a full day without acknowledging the press trailing her. Late at night, still in the white satin, silver-trimmed dress she wore to a $1,000 a-couple dinner in Miami, Joan Kennedy moved through the clusters of reporters and sat down in the press section for an interview, talking animatedly about her life today.

"I feel younger now than I have in 10 years. I feel so much younger now than I did at 30. I really feel I'm starting life all over again."

It was a long metamorphosis -- from golden girl model, Kennedy tag-along and Camelot heiress to becoming her own person. Joan Kennedy once said, "In this family you follow the crowd." Now she says she'll "never be No. 2 again."

Today she recalls all those past campaigns in which she so eagerly participated, starting in 1957 when she was engaged to the senator and campaigned for Jack Kennedy. As if constantly tring to sweep away the image of a separated couple, she says, "People forget I've been around that long."

But no matter how pleasantly she smiled, the vicissitudes of life as a Kennedy became too much for her. There were difficult pregnancies and three miscarriages, a son with bone cancer, Chappaquiddick and constant rumors of a philandering husband. In 1974 she sought rest in private sanitariums at least three times. Her ultimate move "to save herself," as one friend put it, was to leave Washington for Boston two years ago.

"One of the things recommended in therapy was that I do something to enhance my self-esteem." That came when she returned to school and worked toward a master's degree in education at Lesley College of Fine Arts, which she will get in May. Going back to school after 20 years was "scary," but she regained her self-confidence "by doing very well in school, knowing you will be rewarded in the end with a degree." And knowing finally that here was something all her own. She paused. "I can say, 'I earned this.'"

Through Alcoholics Anonymous sessions, Kennedy learned to live the creed, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

Once asked to describe herself, she said with one-word clarity, Vulnerable."

Joan Kennedy says this is not the case today, after going through her "bout of hell" and her "low self-esteem" when drinking. Many in the audience on the campaign trial seem to view her husband as an insensitive chauvinist who helped cause her problem, but she steers away from blaming anyone.

She admits that stories linking her husband romantically to other women once bothered her, but refuses to thrash over the past any more. "When I was sick I blamed everything -- my family, Washington, politics, but I finally learned I have to take responsibility for myself."

She is "staying loose" on the amount of time she will campaign and when she will start giving speeches. "If I stay loose, then good things come to me."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is living up to his Secret Service code name of "Sunburn." his face is red as he sits under an oak dripping with Spanish moss and attacks a plate of barbecued ribs. He is flanked by his wife on one side and her 81-year-old grandmother, Andasia Bennett, on the other. It is clear that Joan Kennedy is coming into this campaign on her own terms. The Kennedys have their Palm Beach and Hyannis retreats. But this time it was a trip to her grandmother's farm. Her husband had never been there before.

The use of the political family is endemic to campaigns. And the Kennedys were masters at it, before Miss Lillian and Amy and Chip and Rosalynn were ever heard of. As the cameras rolled, one cynic in the crowd said, "Ah, isn't it wonderful how campaigns bring families together?"

The senator looked embarrassed by the whole procedure. He did not talk to his wife, and did not touch her arm or laugh with her. In part this could be just the perfunctory familiarity common to any 20-year marriage, but everyone watching talked about it as if sifting every action for some deep significance. Even some staff members worried at how distant they seemed as a couple. It was definitely not the lock-stepping campaign togetherness of, for example, the Reagans, who gaze at each other as if they are discovering each other for the very first time.

"He comes from that long tradition. There is a whole Irish embarrassment at any manifestation of public affection. Somehow, it just seems unseemly," excuses one Boston Irishman who has long known the Kennedy family.

A friend of Joan's said, "I have seen them quite cozy together in private. Who knows how much love is really there in any marriage, but I don't think it's for the public to ask. She has had the gumption to stick it out. I think the marriage will hold and I'm not sure I would have felt that way two years ago."

There is just a slight furrow of impatience as Joan Kennedy is asked why her husband in public statements refers to "her" problem, not "our" problem. "Oh, he knows it's our problem and the children know it's a family problem. It's completely untrue to say he doesn't understand that. I could not have recovered as successfully as I have done in the last two years without Ted. Without his encouragement, and his encouragement to have all five of us [in the family] learn more about my disease and realize that's what it was.

"I wanted to start campaigning earlier and he said, 'Nope, you are going to get your degree. I know how hard you've worked for it.' He's the one who says, 'I'm so proud of you.'" Joan Kennedy says she wants to teach and laughs about whether she would teach in the White House. "Well, I don't think about that every night. I think about what my next campaign stop is."

She also said she worried the last two years about being away from her children so much, but "that's where they have been so terrific. They said I needed that space to get well. And they came up on weekends. I don't think there was a single weekend I was alone. Ted has telephonitis and he's on the phone every night. I would in fact say that our problems have brought us much closer together."

The senator has said publicly that he has been changed by Chappaquiddick but has not elaborated. She says, "I've seen him grow and mature. I understand all the things he went through after the hell I went through." She gives a stock answer to Chappaquiddick questions, that her husband testified under oath, there has been no new evidence raised in the last 10 years, and that "everything's been said."

Several months ago Kennedy said she "really doesn't know" whether her husband still loves her. Today she says, "You have to remember when I gave that interview it was a year and a half ago and I was just into my therapy . . . it was a very uncertain time."

She makes no long-term predictions for her future, but Joan Kennedy says people just have to get used to seeing her on the campaign trail. "It's going to be terrific fun. All of us are going to be together.It is going to be a long 11 months." She smiles and says she is "certain" that they will make it through the nomination. She also seems unfazed by this week's Gallup poll, which shows Ted Kennedy as an underdog for the first time in his life. "That is true -- this is the first time we have not been first," she says, easily slipping into the first person plural. "I just have a sense -- I'm not speaking for Ted -- that you do the best every day and don't panic. It's going to be up and down and it's going to be a long haul."

Finally, as the plane starts its descent into Dulles Airport, Kennedy shakes her head firmly and insists that the return to public life will not be too tough for her, that she is not still too fragile for the endless scrutiny. She has learned too much about self-preservation. She talks about strength, and then taps her chest.

"I have this inside of me now."