JOAN KENNEDY, back from the West Coast where she pinch hit for her husband at several fundraisers, enroute to New Hampshire to campaign, is in Boston long enough to read the gossip that she has had a face lift.

"YOU look at this face!" she says with a laugh. "Is THAT a face lift?" She is wearing little makeup, in afternoon light -- and the answer is no. She seems unperturbed. "Let them say it." It's hardly the worst they have said about her she says with a laugh. "Oh, I know what people say. I sometimes stay in the john and listen and I can mimic it perfectly." She rolls her eyes and comments in a clucking manner, "Oh, that POOR girl. She's been through ENOUGH . . ." c

What Joan Kennedy is saying as she drums up support for her husband's flagging candidacy is, "We can't invite you to dinner at the White House -- yet. We can't pass out federal jobs and federal funds -- yet. But we do have the best candidate. His campaign is a chance for people all over this country to stand up and say that we don't have to accept things the way they are now."

Teddy Kennedy is revving up now, buoyed by a crowd of the faithful in a Portland, Maine, hotel ballroom.

It is "somehow unAmerican" to debate foreign policy these days, says the senator. "In 1968 there was a president who also said, 'look, we can't debate our mistakes in Vietnam. No, we have to rally around the flag.' Now we have a president who says we can't debate foreign policy, we can't debate domestic policy, we can't debate the oil bills, we can't debate the prices you're paying to educate your children, we can't debate high interest rates, we can't debate the well-being of the senior citizens of this country."

He lowers his voice. "Ah, but there is something we can do. We can send all of the cabinet officials up to the state of Maine." His hand traces a wide arc across the air, and he booms, "We can announce that MRS. CARTER can come up to the state of Maine. We can announce that FRITZ MONDALE can come up to the state of Maine. We can see that Jimmy Carter can pick up the PHONE and call the people. . . ."

Thunderous shouts stop him in mid-sentence as Kennedy makes reference to the president's Rose Garden strategy of phoning nightly as many as 40 New England strangers, who just happen to be registered Democrats. "And I say to you, 'Jimmy, we know you like the White House, but we're gonna get you out of that Rose Garden!'"

A Maine Democrat official leans over the balcony and shouts excitedly through the cheers. "This is good stuff! This is the one thing that can turn it around in Maine -- but he's got to go from one end of the state to the other." a

An inconceivable thought four months ago. Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy having to slog through New England hamlets and shipyards as if he had the name recognition of a first-term congressman. Slogging along for today's essentially rinky-dink caucus race that will determine only a handful of delegate voters -- but is now seen as a potentially crippling blow to the once mighty challenger.The polls show Kennedy behind in Maine and New Hampshire and trailing three-to-one in Illinois. As a patriotic fervor envelopes the nation, not even Massachusetts is a sure win.

Still, Kennedy the Underdog, seems more at ease, more content than in December. Then he often had two speeds to his stump speech -- strident or somnolent. His booming voice could fill a warehouse, but it was often also filled with little conviction as he spoke in platitudes, edged himself into a more centrist position, muzzled himself on foreign policy after one shah snafu.

Now he has found his liberal voice and issues. Pundits are dragging out "born again" and "resurrected." If he goes down, says Kennedy, at least it will be with class, standing for something, cloaked in liberalism -- baggy nd unfashionable by today's vogue, but, for him, comfortable.

Now it's easy for Kennedy to return to stump theatrics of old. Speaking to the Consumer Federation of America Thursday Kennedy used bellowing good humor to ridicule the president's refusal to debate. He conducted a "mock debate" with Carter's voice on tape -- minutes after Carter had given a lackluster address. The crowd roared as Kennedy said Cater had to rush back to the White House "to read a vital security document -- the Portland, Maine, telephone directory." The Underdog's Wife Speaks

"The prevailing political climate may be to the right of Ted, but that doesn't mean there aren't an awful lot of people to be spoken to. Out in Iowa it got to be a joke," says Joan Kennedy. "Ted would lambast Carter for his failure to do something for the people -- and a week later Carter would send out from the White House a grant or money. Everyone started saying, 'oh, we have another Kennedy grant'." She laughs. "Do you know how much good Teddy is doing for the country -- just by criticizing Carter who's got this thing about Kennedy?"

Why did her husband get in the race in the first place? "He just thinks Carter's been an inferior president." Scene: Kennedy Pulls The Heart Strings

Kennedy speaks now of a country needing a "compassionate" president. In Q & A, he can still weave through tortured syntax that leaves the traveling press corps muttering "let's play 'find the verb'", but he can also be articulate and, sometimes, eloquent.

At Northeastern University in Boston, filled with the sons and daughters of working-class parents, a conservatism on social issues, a concern over government "giveaways," is reflected in the strident question from one student with a strong South Boston accent. What makes Kennedy so sure his national health plan wouldn't break everyone?

"The fact of the matter is, my friends," says Kennedy slipping into a set phrase he uses, "national health with tough controls on hospitals, tough controls on doctors fees is the only way that we are going to stop the spiraling of health costs at this time. Under our legislation, we virtually find a crossover period after four years when we will begin to actually save money. This year, we will spend $190 billion on health care. In 1980, $338 billion on health care. You're going to bankrupt working people in our society. We are the only country outside of South Africa that doesn't have a health care system -- to free the people of fear of financial ruin because of sickness and illness."

He resorts to his catch line of the mother hearing a sick child cry in the night and wondering if the child is "$50 sick -- because that's what it costs for an emergency room." The crowd cheers as he says "that is not acceptable." fHe looks across the crowded auditorium and stills them. "I wish we could also have some expression of what the cost is to fear in our society. cWhat the cost is for elderly people who can't afford their prescription drugs." His voice breaks. "And the fear that they have. What kind of wage do you put on that kind of fear? What kind of dollars and cents? How does that fit in your balanced budget terms of the 1980s?"

Away from the crowds and the candidate, one can sense that Kennedy is in trouble. New Englanders interviewed reflect the polls of America taken just before Kennedy's Georgetown speech. Carter leads Kennedy by a staggering 34 points. Sixty-eight percent of those polled agree that all candidates should rally behind the president's foreign policy. Even 56 percent of Kennedy supporters agree in one poll.

War vs. peace, patriotism vs. unAmerican, Afghanistan and the ayatollah, the hostages and the Persian Gulf, above all, the Soviets. Strange and frightening rubric that makes this presidential campaign extraordinarily fluid and volatile. Carter's support could dwindle but most betting men would say not in time to make this a Kennedy-Carter horserace.

As Kennedy struggles along, one question is always asked. How did this happen to the last of the Kennedys? The ayatollah and Afghanistan did halt the natural development of the campaign, but other reasons account for Kennedy's miserable showing.

The range of reasons includes:

Kennedy's disastrous stumbling start;

Inordinate press scrutiny;

A dream candidacy pierced by reality and poor staff decisions;

An undercurrent of resentment of all things Kennedy and a comparison of all things Kennedy;

Chappaquiddick and a question of Kennedy's character;

The demise of liberal values.

The best answer is all of the above. Stumbling at the Gate

Campaigns sometimes have one indelible moment that remains fixed in the public's mind. For Muskie, it was crying in the snows of New Hampshire after William Loeb of the Manchester Union Leader attacked his wife in an editorial. For McGovern, it was saying he was first behind his vice presidential choice, Thomas Eagleton, 1,000 percent, then dumping him. For Carter it was "ethnic purity" in neighborhoods. For Kennedy it was last fall's Roger Mudd interview. If all the people saw that interview who now say they did, Mudd would have had a higher rating than the Super Bowl. But Kennedy's stumbling, inarticulate answer to why he wanted to be president was given wide currency in the press. He then shot out of the starting gate with a non-substantive basic speech about anti-malaise and inflation, but it defined no particular reason to vote for him.

There were references to his brothers that didn't make his audiences swoon with nostalgia. There are tougher times, post-Watergate and post-Vietnam. The tabloids have pretty much torn down Camelot. In December, older reporters winced at the ill-advised decision to play Camelot when Kennedy moved into crowded ballrooms in Chicago. Camelot isn't played anymore. The Press

Kennedy never had the luxury of perfecting his act in relative obscurity, like George Bush this year and Carter four years ago. "Air Malaise," that 727 which carried Kennedy, the press and the staff across the country like Air Force One, is now but a memory. Kennedy crowds into Allegheny now, with several Secret Service guarding him. Many of the other passengers are more annoyed at all the disturbance than thrilled to be riding with a Kennedy.

But last fall, his every move was watched, his every stumble recorded."fam farmily," his slip up for "farm family," became a code word famous in press accounts. The Secret Service and the traveling road show kept Kennedy from doing what he used to do so well -- talk easily with people, flash the big grin, charm with his easy humor. This side was so well eclipsed that some of the younger reporters who had never traveled with him in the past wrote that Kennedy was not good at small talk.

There was a special reason, of course, why Kennedy barreled through hotel lobbies and didn't talk to the maids and clerks and working people who hung around to see him. In the entourage are a doctor and three rotating nurses, especially trained for emergencies. Reporters are told never to leave Kennedy's side. Part of their assignment is the death watch.

Kennedy's campaign is often covered as drama and the reporters are drama critics. How he performed, rather than what he said , has been the criterion. Reporters who covered him from the start argue that, in fact, in the beginning he didn't say anything.

"There was a lot of nitpicking," says Saul Friedman of Knight-Ridder newspapers, "because he was non substantive we picked on the nits." That in turn tightened Kennedy up, said an aide. "You could almost see him stiffening, saying to himself 'I must not say fam farmily.'"

Kennedy, judged by some of his past electrifying performances, was supposed to be the supreme stump speaker. The press went out with that view in mind. In many ways Kennedy was not being judged against any other candidate but against himself -- and the glorified rememberances of his brothers.

Walter Isaacson of Time magazine, at 27 the youngest in the traveling Kennedy press corps, argues that "for younger reporters there was nothing to prove. We hadn't fallen in love with Jack or Bobby. I was 16 when Bobby was shot. Kennedy was supposed to be one of the best stump speakers in America. We reported what we saw."

"That's a lot of b.s.," says one reporter who has covered all three Kennedys. "What I hear from the kids now reporting is a built-up antipathy toward Teddy based on how they perceive we covered Jack and Bobby. These young guys who never saw Jack or Bobby feel they have to be macho press and that we weren't. Jack and Bobby didn't get a free ride. Jack used to fumble his major speeches and had no cadence and you're damn right I wrote it -- but he had time to get good at it."

A former consultant on Jack and Bobby's campaigns said, "Some kid said to me, 'boy Bobby's campaign was never like this,' and I said, 'look, do you have any idea how many people were going to get bounced when we got back from California? That campaign had lots of f---ups. There was no post mortem [of the staff] because Bobby died.' The kid said, 'oh.'"

Frank Makiewicz, who was Robert Kennedy's press secretary and a top adviser in the McGovern campaign, says "I thought they were treated fairly. I don't think that is the case now. There seems to be a vast leaning over backward to avoid being pro-Kennedy.

"My major criticism in 1972 was not the coverage of McGovern but how the press covered Nixon -- which was not at all. I think the Washington press corps takes it easy on any president. He says something's a crisis and it's called a crisis. A candidate says it's a crisis and they report 'in what the candidate said was a crisis.' With Bobby there was not so much adulation, but nobody pushed to find everything bad. There wasn't the massive self-indulgence of today's reporting."

Even some of the traveling press admit the slips of other candidates went unreported last fall and that the news had a hard time getting out when Kennedy brought out his detailed energy charts and explained his position it went uncovered.

Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe, the ringleader of much of the boys-on-the-bus humorous jabs at the candidate and the campaign, says, "Kennedy said at the beginning he was going to try talking with small groups as well as the big barn burners. I thought some of those sessions -- I remember one with an elderly man talking about his problems and the cost of prescription drugs -- were damn fascinating. But after one or two of those, the note books went into the pockets and the TV lights clicked off."

It wasn't controversial nor did it easily fit into a 30-second TV spot. Another problem, says another reporter, is that these are "illiberal times. it is not fashionable for either a reporter or a candidate to have liberal thoughts."

Reporters collectively have always been smart ass; wit is prized and broad, outrageous jest is often the slap-happy conclusion of 18-hour days trailing candidates. Pack pressure is strong. "It has always been," says one veteran campaign reporter.

In some ways, today's younger reporters who cover Kennedy reflect the feeling that for most Americans "there are no heroes today" as George Gallup Jr. states. They are nurtured on "Saturday Night Live" where taste has never been a criterion for humor. Kennedy and Chappaquiddick are spoofed unmercifully; a Bill Murray imitation of Kennedy with seaweed dripping from him, mumbling incoherent and unintelligible sentences.

"Smart ass, that's a good word for us," says T. R. Reid of The Washington Post. "We don't write smart ass, but we are smart ass. There is pack pressure. There wasn't a single one in December dissenting from the same view." Reid says there are three reasons. "One is we are convinced we are right. But I think that's too simple.At the top of every one of my stories I would like a rubber stamp, 'I'm not sure of this stuff but. . . .'

"Nobody wants to be odd man out. If everybody's editor is reading the same thing, you don't get any heat. The third reason is the most positive. Most of us have a lot of respect for each other. If you see something and it strikes you one way and your colleagues say you're nuts, it just makes you think again."

There is a strong sense of "not wanting to be Kennedy's whore" among some of the press corps. "If I wrote something nice about Bob Dole no one would even think it," said one.

But others argue that every candidate is examined toughly by the press -- especially when he is the front runner. One White House reporter, smarting from criticism that Carter is getting an easy ride, said "people forget how Carter has been covered for three years. He didn't get to 19 percent in the polls (pre-Iran) all by himself."

One fact that seldom gets reported is that the press generally likes Kennedy the person. "Kennedy has taken more dumping and yet you never see him mad," says Phil Jones of CBS, who has been criticized in print as being petty on Teddy. Most who cover Kennedy cannot imagine him giving a "you won't have Ted Kennedy to kick around" exit speech a la Nixon. They often compare him to Carter, who is regarded, by most in the press, as a cold, precision-tough candidate of the don't-get-mad-get-even school of politics.

Even in December, Kennedy would stroll back to the press section of the plane, puff on a cigar and joke. Now the humor is more evident than ever.

At one plant gate, as some of the press huddled inside a shack out of the cold, Kennedy joked with others. Looking at the shack and seeing Jones peering out, Kennedy marched over to his competitor, Chris Wallace of NBC, and started gesticulating, talking furiously. As Jones raced out to see what Kennedy was saying, Kennedy raised his voice as if ending a discussion about Carter. "So that's why I think he is naive -- and I don't have another thing to say on the subject!" and walked off, practically giving Jones an ulcer before he realized it was a joke. The Dream Candidacy Meets Reality

Great Expectations. Writing off Kennedy on the basis of one whopping caucus defeat is in part due to unrealistic expectations when he got in the race. Some reporters and pollsters now feel that the anti-Chappaquiddick vote was never accurately plumbed; that it would have been a tough race even without the tide of foreign events.

And there was a certain assumption that the magic name itself would carry a man who had never campaigned outside of Massachusetts. "A thought widely shared by the Kennedy campaign," says one caustic observer.

For some voters there is a nagging question as to whether Kennedy has what it takes to be president.

Kennedy has been psychoanalized more in print than most candidates. As a child he was chubby, cheerful Teddy, "always willing to put up the boat" for his older sailing brothers, a generally unmemorable student, shifted and shunted to no less than 10 schools before college -- a child alternately spoiled and overlooked. He showed no resentment and was the master of accommodation. "Smilin' Ed," the yearbooks said. "Fat Ted," he signed his childhood letters. The last of nine in a very verbal family who never had much practice finishing his sentences. The fun lover who was never meant to be the elder statesman.

Forced to grow up, he is now regarded as one of the best senators. Still, Kennedy at times has seemed trapped both in the public's mind and in his own -- somewhere between the unforgettable recklessness of Chappaquiddick and the role of dutiful heir carrying on for his brothers.

And so, following his defeat in Iowa, when Kennedy answered "yes" that he had to win New Hampshire, it looked to some like yet another act of Kamikaze Kennedy; a man looking for a way out.

"That's because you in the press are always looking for some deep reason behind a 'well-oiled campaign.' Did it ever occur to you that it was just a hasty comment he shouldn't have made?" asks one Washington political operative who criticizes Kennedy's campaign staff.

"You can't run a national campaign with a Senate staff. They aren't used to the snap decisions that have to be made." Some of the men who helped run his brothers' campaigns are frankly hurt that they were not called on board and feel that Kennedy made a deliberate decision not to be identified with them, to form his own team.

One dumped all over the staff, grumbled that Kennedy's brother-in-law, Steve Smith, was good at fundraising but no campaign manager (a view shared by others, including some within the campaign staff) and rapped Kennedy for starting without a well-though-out message. The negatives were long. He was finally asked if he thinks Carter is better. "Oh, Christ, no! Kennedy stands for something. Carter did nothing for three years. You have to look at this race on a 'Compared to What?' basis. On that basis, Kennedy is far better. He cares. If he gets knocked out early, the Democrats who can't stand Carter will be stuck with him. You have to think of the alternative. The Anti-Kennedy Mystique

"There is a very large body of anti-Kenndy voters in this country these days. The opposition to him is personal, almost chemical, and sometimes borders on the irrational."

That is a Kennedy, all right, but it was Scotty Reston, writing of Bobby Kennedy in April of 1968.

You hear it everywhere. A certain visceral dislike that is as troubling as the irrational adulation from which the Kennedys have also benefited.

A student on a Boston campus, after a Kennedy speech, said, "I don't like him. Just his style.Too flashy. He thinks he's really something because he's a Kennedy. What makes him think he can be president?"

It is reflected in some of the anti-Chappaquiddick sentiment: "Only a Kennedy could get away with it." And "If it was anybody else, he'd be in jail."

In the ratty headquarters in Manchester, N.H., a worker sighs, "There is a decided 'let's stick it to Kennedy' vote."

On the Hill, one senator says many of his Democratic colleagues have always been jealous of Teddy, the one senator who could call a press conference and be assured that everyone would come. Many are not exactly heartbroken at his faltering campaign. Few, including those he was given fundraising speeches for, have come out for him. Still, says the senator, that feeling is beginning to be tempered by the view that four more years of Carter -- or a Republican -- is not the cheeriest of prospects, either. The Chappiquiddick Factor

In one recent poll, taken before his Georgetown speech, Kennedy is seen as "too liberal" by 47 percent (as compared with 32 precent who felt that way last August). One third of those polled say their impression of Kennedy has become worse -- 30 percent of them citing "the way he answers questions" 24 percent blaming his original shah statement, 18 percent his attacks on Carter and 15 percent naming Chappaquiddick.

(While the anti-chappaquiddick answer is sometimes a convenience for those who would never vote for Kennedy under any circumstances, many others truly see the way Kennedy handled the accident as a troublesome character flaw.)

A random walk through Manchester, New Hampshire's major shopping mall: Bush and Reagan are mentioned favorably the most, even by those who say they are registered independent. There is some stand-strong-behind-Jimmy talk. Some jingoistic war talk. But mostly people volunteer their views on Chappaquiddick and Kennedy's private life.

George Dufresne, 23, small, blond-haired, says, "I'm not really into Kennedy because of that accident he had, you know? I think he was there on that island before. The Manchester Union says that and it don't lie."

The Manchester Union Leader, run by the irrascible William Loeb, attacks Kennedy continuously on Chappaquiddick. A woman refers to a recent sensational article, "I used to think I'd go for Kennedy before this," she says, as if Chappaquiddick happened yesterday."I wish he'd come out and say what happened. He 'doesn't remember.' Why did it take so long to get help? He says he didn't want to upset a party -- for a life that's in the water?"

Another woman, listening to her, nods. "A woman kind of puts herself in that poor girl's place. But even my husband, we're watching Kennedy on TV the other night and my husband says, 'why doesn't he say the truth?'"

A third friend, sitting on the bench, joins in nodding knowingly. "His wife is not being cool to him for nothing. She knows a lot. And she starts up drinking after that. What do you think that's from?"

One of the trio, an attractive redhead, says, "Well, I think he has some good ideas, I really do.But Chappaquiddick is just like a big cloud." sWhat are Kennedy's good ideas? "I'm not too crazy about our boys and girls being drafted." Another, a mother who has nine children, with several boys of draft age, agrees. "I guess I haven't made up my mind yet." They seem to need an overwhelming reason to erase Chappaquiddick. The Kennedy Magnet

Hawkish is the only mood for most Americans today, but some people are beginning to question registration for the draft and Carter's unilateral push to defend the Persian Gulf. Kennedy often gets support when he champions gas rationing to lessen our dependence on the Persian Gulf, rather than "spilling the blood of young Americans to defend OPEC pipelines."

Kennedy's newly voiced views bring some young followers to New England. They are broke. One came with $200 from Iwoa to distribute among volunteers for food. He is in Maine trying to help set up a field operation just days before the Maine caucus "because everyone in this country is talking war -- except one person. Kennedy is the only one who has the courage to talk peace." Scene: Facing the Lions

Kennedy knows that there are many hunters in a Maine auto plant who oppose him for his gun control stance. Carter's ads have assailed him on this issue.

Kennedy stands halfway up a stairwell and shouts over the factory noise to workers clustered below. His legislation would not effect "sporting guns" but "Saturday night specials." He says his legislation "would take hand guns out of the hands of narcotics addicts and felons and juveniles. I would not interfere with the legitimate use of sporting guns. But I am deeply concerned about the proliferation of Saturday night specials. The only purpose is for killing people. And I feel strongly about that and I am NOT going to change my position." Cheers erupt.

"The fact of the matter is, Mr. Carter has the same position and yet he wouldn't send any legislation to the Congress of the United States. So make no mistake on where we stand on it!" The Decline of Liberal Values

In the high-ceilinged plant in Maine, workers face an uncertain future. Robert Dann is close to 40, seems tired. His job is one of unending monotony, molding parts of the stripping around automobile windows from 2:30 to 10:30 p.m. There are six molds and, "You just run back and forth, back and forth all night." From February through December, Dann made $9,600. He pays $98 per month all year around for heating oil. His wife is a data processor, he was a truck driver for 18 years.

Dann wears a blue and white Kennedy button and he is running for an office in the union local. "I talk to a lot of guys. Kennedy doesn't show that much support. It's kinda half and half between him and Carter of the ones who are certain. The rest are undecided."

On foreign policy, says Dann, "I stand 100 percent behind President Carter on everything he's said so far." He is also "100 percent for the wage and price freeze" that Kennedy suggested. "Both men have their good and bad points." What has Carter done that has been good? "It's hard to say, really." A shrug. "He's done the best he can."

War? "Let's face it, it's a possiblity." Do you see Carter as favoring big business? "Let's face it, don't we all have to concentrate on big business?"

Dann leans against a post and sighs. "Do you know what really bothers me the most? Spending all this money on foreign countries. It gripes you, with people struggling to live over here. Even if Kennedy got to be president what could he do? He hasn't got national health passed in the Senate -- which I am for 100 percent.

"Chappaquiddick's going to hurt him, especially with people around here. I don't see Chappaquiddick enters into it at all. It's a thing of the past and no reflection on his leadership today."

Asked why he's wearing the Kennedy button, Dann says, "Because the UAW is backing Kennedy and I'm part of the UAW. It wouldn't take much to sway my vote either way."

Dann says he is more liberal than most of his co-workers. "They're ultraconservative in this area. I sometimes feel I stand alone. I'm a liberal." But then he adds that job insecurity makes it difficult to think of others less fortunate.

"It's getting to the point where you can't be liberal. You never know from one day to the next if you have a job. Everything we do depends on Detroit." o Scene: Kennedy on Women

Kennedy is speaking in a small hotel room in Portland, Maine, packed with 250 women. His speech is a detailed litany on the inequities for women: in jobs, wages, health care, social security. He departs from the text to rail against the "national outrage" that half the women in this nation who are over 65 are left with incomes of less than $2,900 a year.

His health plan would assure benefits for women as individuals, "not as appendages to men." The administration's plan would "continue to treat women as second-class citizens." One imperative is child care, "Yet two years ago, the Carter administration attempted to close facilities in federal offices for child care." The women applaud often, cheer loudly to his opposition to registering for the draft, listen to his energy message as Kennedy shouts "Many families in Maine are now driving less and conserving more and with little or no reward for their sacrifices -- while refiners' margins have increased 800 PERCENT!"

Earlier, reporters had mumbled that Kennedy's speech ended with the height of cynicism -- speaking of his mother, daughter and wife . . . "My wife decided to continue with her education. She had the resources, but that must be available to every woman. And with Joan in graduate school, I have had the chance to take greater responsiblity for my daughter and two sons . . . It was a wonderful experience that more men should share . . . As I listen to joan and Kara, I have a feeling that I will be learning more about the women's movement in the years ahead."

After the speech many women said, however, that they were impressed with Kennedy. They were women activists and they liked Kennedy's voting record on women, day care, health. One said, "Chappaquiddick bothers me but Carter bothers me more." Another said "I was concerned that Kennedy didn't have women on his staff in top positions, but the man has voted right." The Underdog Caravan

Kennedy plugs on, into the night. Two more speeches to go. A caravan of press buses and staff cars and Secret Service and a police car, its blue light flashing, the full moon lighting up the snow banks. On past the small suburban houses to a gym packed with 2,000 people in Brunswick, Maine.

The voice cracks at times now as Kennedy says he cares about the working people who sit there, some in lumberjack jackets, some holding their children in their laps. He talks of the terrible toll of inflation, pinpoints his stand on wage and price and gas rationing.

They listen hard. It seems that the same one-third clap all the time. Like all crowds, it is hard to get a true fix on how they feel about Kennedy. lIn these serious times, the people who bother to show up, often come to hear, not to cheer; to listen, not to expound. b

Kennedy tells the reporters he is in this race for a long time. But if he loses badly in New England, what then? Peter Hart, his pollster, says Kennedy looks at the primaries in three tiers -- Iowa to Illinois, Illinois to Pennsylvania and Michigan through to the end. The bulk of the delegates come on down the road. Kennedy has to have a win, has to have his North Carolina (that was when Reagan first won a primary four years ago). But it doesn't have to be right away is the Kennedy message these days.

"Public opinion changes awfully quickly," says Hart.

But the news leaks out, slowly. The hostages just might be released in a month -- just as people are getting restless about Carter's policy. The uncertainty of it all hangs over Maine and New Hampshire.

For now, Kennedy says he is in it as long as he can fund a campaign. "There is just too much to talk about, too many issues. . . ."

Kennedy smiles jauntily, as if he is actually relieved at not longer being first. Is he, in some strange way, liberated by losing? By being an underdog?

If Kennedy should lose or should pull out, wouldn't that free him from the everlasting spectre of being "the last of the Kennedys?"

"He doesn't think of those things," says his wife. "And I don't.Let others explain it away. We're in it to win, but I know what keeps me in good shape and Teddy too. He just knows that win or lose, he's good for this campaign and good for the country. That's why his spirits are so high. We know what we're doing is right. That's what frees you up."