It was a cat and mouse game except that Teddy Kennedy, the mouse, was getting the better of Jimmy Carter, the hiding cat.

Both men came before 900 delegates to the annual meeting last Thursday of the Consumer Federation of America, the group that tries to even the imbalance when part-time consumers go into the marketplace against the full-time sellers. Carter spoke at 11 in the morning, Kennedy at 11:45. Officials of the federation tried to arrange a debate, but Carter, as though wary of an untested product, wasn't buying.

Kennedy turned the president's burried departure into a barb that delighted much of the CFA audience: "Jimmy Carter had to get back to the White House to read a vital national security document -- the Portland, Maine, telephone directory."

Much of Kennedy's speech hit Carter for waging a "silent campaign (that) is a form of consumer fraud." The president "could be here today at 11 o'clock to praise and puff his record, but he could not be here at 12 o'clock to debate and defend it."

Actually Carter didn't have that much to praise and puff. This was a sophisticated issue-minded audience that had been through the high-rolling years of the 1960s and early 1970s when pro-consumer legislation sailed through Congress on the warmest of winds. The complaint about Carter is that when the fighting reached a peak in 1977 to create a consumer protection agency -- a lowcost proposal which had became rich in symbolism -- Carter failed to exert any extra effort to push for it.

Carter's strength with the consumer movement is that he took a number of its leaders and appointed them to crucial regulatory jobs. This includes Michael Pertschuk of the Federal Trade Commission, Joan Claybrook in the Department of Transportation and Carol Foreman of the Department of Agriculture. In his speech, though, Carter wasn't content to mention merely these three. He strained to inflate his ties to the movement by saying that three other appointees -- Sam Brown, Gino Baroni and Graciela Olivarez -- were also former consumer advocates.

They weren't. Brown was in the antiwar coalition. Baroni was the Catholic priest who organized ethnics and Olivarez worked as a lawyer in the poverty program in the Southwest.

With not much of a pro-consumer record to talk about, Carter's speech had the nutritive substance of the soda, candy and Twinkies that his adminstration still hasn't been able to ban from the schools. He stirred the audience only once, when promising to veto any anti-FTC bill that Congress sends to him. As for what he himself is doing currently to head off the savaging of the FTC, now going on in Congress, Carter didn't say.

Kennedy didn't say much either about his consumer record. The CFA director did that for him. In her introduction, she cited his high CFA ratings (over 90 precent) based on his voting record in the Senate for 17 years. She reported that of all the senators ever rated by CFA, Kennedy ranked the third highest: "He stood with us not when convenient, but was with us consistently."

With Carter doing no better than tepidly asking the audience for "your help on a consumer agenda," Kennedy offered them a few examples of how he was a victim of marketplace deception. The Carter operatives, he said, now have "a radio commercial in New England saying that I voted against a tax credit to insulate homes. The ad leaves the inpression that I oppose federal help for insulation. In fact, I favor a direct subsidy instead of a tax credit." The ad, Kennedy charged angrily, is an effort "to tell you something that is, in effect, untrue."

Giving the consumer audience full value for its money, Kennedy stayed on for half an hour of questioning after his speech. Carter left immediately, avoiding the shoppers.

In the absence of a debate, the audience saw different parts of the marketplace. Carter, the incumbent, bolstered by the additives and protein supplements of the presidency and Kennedy, the challenger, offering some crisp, leafy greens. Measured by the number of the interruptions for applause, the consumers in this audience prefered a political diet of fresh, not processed, food.