It was their kind of liberalism: government desegregation and school-lunch programs, government regulation of the oil companies, government health care.

And so the delegates to the 33rd annual Americans for Democratic Action convention cheered wildly as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) spoke their minds, freeing them from the nagging realities of Ronald Reagan's and Jimmy Carter's delegate totals.

But after the Saturday morning speech and some waving of "Kennedy All the Way" signs, the candidate swept out the door with his Secret Service entourage. The ADA liberals were left to chart their vision by themselves.

Later, over cocktails, Kennedy buttons were uniform and Carter was anathema as old friends, veterans of open-housing battles and past and present Kennedy campaigns, were reunited at a reception in the Mayflower Hotel. Conversation was gloomy at the ADA delegates faced the unpleasant prospects of draft registration, oil decontrol and American conservatism.

Still, there were the optimists.

"Nothing is so good for liberals as adversity," said founding ADA member and Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. "We were too confident for too long." As he spoke, he towered over a trio of you caucus delegates. "This is the largest gathering I've been in many years," he remarked.

Most of those in the room had come to ADA through traditional liberal channels such as the labor movement of through New Deal reforms that the organization has supported since its founding in 1947. ADA members consider themselves Social Democrats, roaring with applause and chanting "We want Ted" after Kennedy attacked the goal of creating a balanced budget with "phantom policies."

"Our task, as we see it," Kennedy said, "is not to turn aside or turn back, but to adapt government to the present posibilities of progress."

But in a corner of the room stood John Engber, a fresh-from-college graduate who sipped a Michelob and wore an Anderson button on the lapel of his classic blue suit. "Anderson has more of a free-enterprise attitude than most of the members of ADA," Engber said, "but he's a proven leader and willing to express his views on issues like gun control and abortion. It's a matter of getting what you can get."

"I can't vote for either Reagan or Carter," said Jonathan Naimon, a young Hiller staffer, "so in the fall I'm going to vote for a mainstream Republican -- John Anderson."

Still, the Anderson supporters remained a minority in the crowd. "John Anderson is no blazing liberal," political analyst Alan Baron said during a Friday night session. The crowd broke into applause, then became hushed when he continued with: "The suburbanites in their Volvos who are voting for him are no blazing liberals, either. They are liberals on the classic liberal issues, but they're not Social Democrats."

Publicity, the ADA stood unified in its loyalty to Kennedy, the then-unannounced candidate the organization had cried for during its convention a year ago. But in private confessionals along the corridors and in caucusroom corners, many of the 500 ADA delegates said they would reluctantly vote for Carter for Carter in November.

"Hope spring eternal," said ADA national director Leon Shull of the Kennedy candidacy, "but we realize, at best, we have a tough, uphill fight. Above all, we must work on the platform. "If he withdrew now, what leverage would we have at all?"

Hearly, William "wimpy" Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists, stood surrounded by IAM members still wearing orange name tags from their earlier apperance at Democratic Party platform hearings. He too stresed the platform as an "enormously important piece of business -- at least as a commitment."

But when reminded that nominees do not always adhere to platform planks, Winpisinger exlaimed, "Yeah, like that little fink we've got in there now."

Besides Carter, Kennedy and Anderson backers, the convention attracted a range of other Democratic political sects. There was Barry Commoner's Citizen's Party, for instance, and the Democratic Socialists. And one young woman was even making a handprinted sign that said "ramsey Clark for President."

In his keynote address to the convention, Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) warned the ADA delegates that if liberalism is to survive, it must be fostered in the younger generation that has "never known the anger that fed the liberal cause. They have not grown up reading about hungry poor people; they have grown up reading about abuses in the food program."

Throughout the four-day convention, rebellious ADA members met in informal strategy sessions to plot a takeover of the August party convention. The fever was particularly high after a Friday night panel. During a party thrown afterward by the youth caucus in a clammy room upstairs, delegates raised beer bottles and vowed they would win a rules fight that would free Carter delegates to vote their consciences, which, it was assumed, would lead to a Kennedy nomination.

"I'm for blood on the convention floor," said one young delegate, diluting his Bloody Mary with ice water.

But as much as they appear to love Kennedy, the ADA liberals just may love parliamentary procedure and the democratic process more.

The thought of changing the "faithful" delegate rule in the middle of the game didn't wash well with the ADA political and governmental policy commission, which quashed motions suggesting the delegates be freed by committing the question to "further study." In the corner of the room sat Anderson supporter and liberal philanthropist Stewart Mott.

On Saturday, the apparent -- but still minor -- rift between the old- and the new-style liberals was set aside during a tribute to Allard K. Lowenstein, the former ADA president who was fatally shot three months ago. Three young political activists who had joined ADA under Lowenstein told tales of his idealism, then announced the creation of an ADA student internship to be funded in his honor.

Outside the room Lowenstein's 11-year-old son, Thomas Kennedy, clutches a bunch of red licorice and a Citizen's Party bumper sticker. He wants to be a congressman, he said, and he wants Kennedy to be the Democratic nominee.

And if Kennedy is not? "Maybe Carter," he replied, although adding, "I may say 'forget it.' Who's worth it?"