Iowa can be cruel this time of the year. There is snow on the ground, the wind can be sharp and sometimes it blows the same snow at you time and time again. Iowa can be dreary this time of the year, and coming here with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy does not take the edge off it. He is, I have to tell you, no happy warrior.

The speeches are sometimes cold and lifeless. He refers to himself mostly as "we" and talks of "our administration" -- the one he will have when he wins. He speaks in cliches. He says Iowa is the "heartland of the country" and "the crossroads of the nation." It is not stirring stuff.

In a speech before farmers, some 400 of them, he talked like a zombie. He was lifeless, humorless, totally without passion. He made a speech on farm policy live up to your worst expectations for a speech on farm policy. He flubbed his words and stepped on his applause lines and the only applause he got was when he quoted his brother -- about how farmers buy retail and sell wholesale and pay the freight both ways. It is a good line, but it was John Kennedy's.

But he can be terrific, too. A bit later in a Univeristy of Iowa speech, he lambasted President Carter, first declaring his solidarity with the president on Iran and then saying that the crisis in Tehran should not stifle debate on domestic issues. Having said that, he took the president apart, using irony and humor and sounding like a real campaigner. More often now than in the past, those who travel with him steadily say he does not do it often enough.

The people come to see Kennedy no matter what. He is a genuine celebrity, maybe the only one left on the political scene. In the bitter cold of an early morning near here, mothers dragged their children to a railroad siding to see Kennedy stand before a grain elevator so he could be filmed by television cameras.

People were there waiting for him. It was cold, but he is Teddy Kennedy, so they waited with Instamatics of bygone Christmases to take his picture.

It is early yet in the campaign, I know, and this day in Iowa is just a glimpse. It is just December, and already we are in the business of a presidential campaign. There is a long way to go. A candidate must find his rhythm, develop his own issues. It is early and the nation's attention is focused elsewhere: on Tehran and the White House. Right now, there is nothing in this whole world as irrelevant as a campaign bus leaving a trail of blowing snow on an Iowa highway. It is hard to battle a president who has become, thanks to Iran, a sudden commander-in-chief.

But there is something else going on -- something. You could see whatever-it-is in that Roger Mudd interview on CBS -- this inability to answer the question this awful fumbling on Chappaquiddick, this inability to say why he was running, and this feeling you have that he is holding back, talking about himself in the third person, somehow not letting you in.

Maybe this is all a personal perception. After all, I was raised on Kennedys. I read "The Making of the President," and saw all the films on Jack and then read all the books on Bobby. Always it was fun; the campaigns had purpose and they went through the land like some glittering crusade. Maybe we expect too much. Maybe it is not Jimmy Carter who can't compete with the Kennedy image. Maybe Teddy can't, either.

On the plane en route to Iowa we talked. I asked first about the Mudd interview -- about why he had done so poorly. He said he didn't want to discuss it. It was over in the past -- gone. He didn't want to discuss it. I asked anyway why he didn't answer the question about why he was running for president and he said he could -- and he did. He talked about leadership and the economy, of inflation of oil decontrol and of a Democratic president who was unable to enlist the Democratic Congress in his cause.

I asked about how he felt when that woman came into his office wielding a knife. He paused. "You have to be philosophical about these things," he said. He shrugged, and then I asked if he was having fun. This was always part of Camelot legend -- fun.

Campaigning had been fun once, Kennedy said. It had been fun when he was younger. It had been fun to see the country and meet the people, but it was, by and large, fun no more. We were descending into Iowa when he said how he felt.

"The basic joy of it went out with my brothers," he said. CAPTION: Picture, EDWARD M. KENNEDY . . . a cold start