Ted Kennedy jumped up on a dainty, French period chair at his sister-in-law's last night to address the crowd.

It creaked, and cracked, and Kennedy was forced to step down.

"Well, there goes the fund-raiser," he told the 450 people of Hickory Hill who, moments earlier, had been mesmerized -- not by the candidate, but by the tense conclusion of the Dallas-Redskins game.

A giant screen was set up in a party tent off the living room, and Kennedy had to wait for the groans and shouts to subside after Dallas' winning conversion before the fund-raiser really started.

So he got it under way with jokes. "The food might not be as good as you expected," the candidate said, this time with his feet planted firmly on the parquet floor. "The chef quit last night when Ethel asked him to turn 100 bottles of water into wine.

"But we found a caterer from Aspen, Colo," (where Ethel Kennedy once had a celebrated squabble with a local caterer over a bill).

As consolation, however, the candidate offered a door prize. "First prize: Two weeks with the dogs."

After that, Kennedy thanked the crowd for their contributions, and said the money raised thus far would enable him to take his campaign through the first third of the primary and caucus state." We have achieved our goal and gotten an excellent response," he said.

Departing quickly, Kennedy and Joan, who was wearing a silky purple dress were gone almost before the crowd realized it.

The departing candidate was backed up by the usual Kennedy clan: Ethel, Stephen and Jean Smith. And 10 of Ethel's 11 kids (Joe was in Iowa), and one of her six dogs, who hid under the dining-room table (the others had been locked up).

They all go in free. Everybody else had to pay $1,000 for three hours of a very crowded house. But then, it was Hickory Hill.

"It's like going to the source, said one Washington lawyer who pleaded for anonymity. "A lot of people figure they pay $1,000 for a campaign anyway, so they might as well pay their $1,000 and come here. I mean it's not Gusti's."

But the Kennedy money people seemed less interested in motivation than in the bottom line -- which comes to $3 million, which the campaign has raised in the past seven weeks.

"Three million dollars still impresses me," said Stephen Smith, Ted Kennedy's brother-in-law and campaign manager.

But the Kennedy people admitted it wasn't easy, especially in Washington. "We had to start from scratch," said Washington attorney Tom Quinn, chairman of last night's effort. "It's not easy to sell one hundred $1,000 tickets to anyone." Fifty to 60 percent of the ticket sales, Quinn added, were finalized in the past few days.

"We had no lists," Quinn continued. "It doesn't cost that much to run for the Senate in Massachusetts. The Kennedys have never had to raise much money in Washington before."

But judging from the crowd, the money was there. Mercedes, Cadillacs and an assortment of foreign sports cars crossed the cattle guard and rolled up in a continuous stream in front of the stately Georgian white brick home. At one point, a small Porsche backed into a not-so-small Rolls-Royce parked in the driveway, but there was no yelling or fist raising: The owners had already been ushered into the party.

The press had not. Some two dozen reporters were kept outside in the cold and rain for well over an hour until the guests had finished watching the redskins game.)

The party decorations alternated between campaign and Christmas. Outside, bounding energetically over the shrubbery in the estate's front yard were eight plastic reindeer and one plastic Santa. Multicolor lights made the flying fauna look like a department store display. The wreaths were real, however, and they hung with big red bows in every window.

Inside, Teddy-bear decorations hung from the Christmas tree -- and from Ethel Kennedy's neck. The ones in the tree were but ornaments; the one around her neck was gold.

The guests, mostly from the Washington area, were not the glitterati crowd that often shows up at Kennedy functions. Included were James Symington, Steve Martindale, former Ambassador to Mexico Pat Lucey, liberal Joe Raugh (who describes himself as "Mr. Maverick Liberal Democrat"), Liz Stevens, Stanly Pottinger, Lemoyne Billings and Rufus Phillips.

Swirling around Ethel, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, were lots of local folks who seemed a bit dazzled to be there. In Christmas velvets and silk, they piled into the library seemingly magnetized by the masses of family snapshots that become touchstones of American political history: Bobby Kennedy with the omnipresent dog; Jack squinting in the sun; the endless clusters of children, and wind-blown hair.

There were pictures in the yellow living room too, but they couldn't be seen for the crowds of people. In fact, almost nothing was visible but the crowd. That phenomenon prompted some party-rating:

"I'd give it a 10 -- wouldn't you?" said Martindale, the professional party-goer who should know such things. True Davis, who goes to more than a few himself, disgreed. "We have so damn many people in here I have to rank it as an 8," he said.

Max Kennedy, who is 14 and lives there, gave it a 9 1/2.

A few people wanted to keep their names out of the newspapers, obviously hedging their political bets in the eternal Washington Waltz of the uncommitted.

Senate colleagues present included George McGovern (D-S.D.), who said his endorsement of the Massachusetts Democrat still stood. But Edward Zorinsky, (D-Neb.) said his appearance last night "in no way constitutes an endorsement." Zorinsky went on to say that he was there "out of respect for a colleague" because Kennedy invited him: I'm going to support the nominee of the party."

There was also a host of lawyers, a lot of hard-core Kennedy supporters from the era of Bobby and Jack Kennedy, a mix of younger, professional Washingtonians who seemed eager to get on the bandwagon, and one Florida couple on their honeymoon.

"I've never heard of a honeymoon like this," Judie Ritter told her husband of three days, Lou. And intimate and romantic it was not.

Other lovebirds included newly engaged 23-year-old Courtney Kennedy and Jeff Ruhe, assistant to Roone Arledge at ABC. They'll be married in June.

Nobody dwelt upon Kennedy's standing in the polls. It depressed some people, Joe Raub said that right up to the moment he came to the party he had been worried.

"People seem to think the campaign wasn't going well. Beating an incumbent requires a miracle, and the general perception was that there was no miracle."

But after three hours at the party, Rauh decided it might be a turning point in Kennedy's campaign. If the numbers who showed up were any indication of what's ahead.

But Iran was the most talked-about subject of the evening.

"That dominates everything," said Smith, adding that "it makes it very difficult to campaign in a direct way."

Kennedy didn't get into the politics of it, but voiced concern for the "safe return for the hostages to the United States. We're all united in that."

Rauh quipped that Carter will have to spend "the next three months trying to keep the Iran thing going."

And one guest said, "Who would ever think Carter would acquire the Ayatollah Khomeini as his campaign manager?"

Jennifer Phillips, wife of art patron Laughlin Phillips, said she was surprised at how few people she knew at the party.

"I expected more of the quote Washington establishment unquote to stand right up and be counted," she said.

"They're home watching the Redskins, I guess. Now that they've lost, there won't be any more excuses."

At precisely 9 p.m., the food was whisked away. Ethel Kennedy stationed herself at the door, and announced: Well, it's pumpkin time." She took a sip of a banana daiquiri ("that's so good") and began to bid her thousand-dollar guests goodbye.