On the president's side, political etiquette required you to say, and crisply: "Well. It's still a little early." On Ted Kennedy's side, etiquette seememd wholly ridiculous.

"We're high!" one reporter yelled in the marble halls of the Corcoran. "My God, of course. I mean, it's turned around. Now I'm looking for possible converts."

This was from local Kennedy organizer Mark Plotkin, who probably didn't find too many of those at a reception for Jimmy Carter's cabinet members last night. That's because this early evening recreational eating and drinking event was just loaded with Carterite after Carterite, each more eager than the next to point out they never took much stock in network projections, anyway.

"Polls don't close 'til 9," observed Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti at 8. At 7, networks had shown Kennedy leading significantly in New York.

Irrelevant, it seemed. Skepticism and a "let's-not-count-our-chickens, etc.," attitude prevailed, especially among certain congressmen who had worked bery hard to make sure they got the vote out for Carter.

Take Leo Zeferetti, for instance, the representative from Brooklyn, who just four days ago was assuring a local Democratic boss that all was well for the president.

Zeferretti's tune last night:

"Well," he said. "It's still a little early." (This was beginning to sound like a smoothly flowing mantra.) "I still think he's going to take the state -- and he's going to win in my district." By 12 a.m., however, Kennedy was winning 6 to 5 in Zefferetti's congressional district.)

Not everyone was as peppy. Or as cooly self-controlled, either.

From HUD Secretary Moon Landrieu, when informed of Carter's apparent defeat in New York:

"Oh wow," he said. "The whole place?"

From Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt, who spent a recent day campaigning and eating knishes on the Lower East Side:

"Can you imagine if I'd have been up there for five days? What trouble I'd be in."

And from Defense Secretary Harold Brown: "I'm going back to my office to find out what the score is."

Which he did at precisely 8:01 p.m., 59 minutes before the reception was officially over. All you could see was a flash of his distinguished gray and white head as he rushed out the door.

Also rushing out the door approximately 35 minutes earlier were Treasury Secretary G. William Miller and Energy Secretary Charles Duncan. They had, said Miller, "just a little briefing session" scheduled across the street with the president. The subject? Energy, not New York.

The official hosts of the reception were the Democratic congressional campaign committees, as well as the Democratic congressional leadership. Official honorees were the cabinet members, 11 out of 13 showing. And there were 700 official guests, most of them out-of-towners, who paid $1,000 each for last night's reception and to have dinner and listen to Carter speak at the Washington Hilton tonight.

The money goes to fund Democratic campaigns but also serves to show some wealthy non-Washigton folk a good time. The reception at the Corcoran, with seafood newberg and shrimp tempura and beef tenderloin and petits fours and absolutely sinful fudge brownies, served as sort of a kickoff.

"These people come here from all over the country, and well, they want to have them meet some congressmen and cabinet members, you know," observed one longtime observer of the Washington fund-raising scene. "That's the way they pull in the herd."

Certain members of this herd, at least by mid-reception or so, seemed to have been pulled in by some awfully strange ways.

"She had to have 12 more stitches," Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) was telling a group of Midwestern dairymen. The subject was his mother-in-law's cataract operation, and the dairymen appeared spellbound.

The only two cabinet members who didn't show were Labor Secretary Ray Marshall and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Everyone else managed to show up and stand in the receiving line for at least a few minutes.

At the beginning of the evening, guests were treated to greetings from Miller and Duncan, who later took themselves out to be replaced by Brown and Civiletti. Landrieu and Education Secretary Shirley Hufstedler seemed to last longest, and might have won the record for most handshaking.

But as the reception wound down, the lie vanished with the cabinet members into adjoining rooms full of food and paintings by Texas artist John Alexander. They had titles like Back Door Desires" and "Fighting Back the Tears."