Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and a small entourage from his national campaign staff made a 30-minute opening his election drive in Maryland before a hastily thrown together collection of avid supporters and casual onlookers.

Describing President Carter's foreign policy as one "that is lurching from crisis to crisis," Kennedy told the crowd of about 250 people gathered at the Holiday Inn that "we can do better . . ."

Making his first campaign appearance since his setback in the Iowa caucus vote Monday night, the Massachusetts Democrat journeyed six miles from the U.S. Capitol into a state whose Democratic hierarchy has largely rejected or ignored his candidacy. Maryland's Democratic primary is May 16.

Rep. Barbara Mikulski, the diminutive Democratic sparkplug from Baltimore, was on hand to introduce the candidate -- telling the crowd "you can clap" as she did so -- but few other state officials were on hand to fill out the list between Mikulski's name and that of the Rosalie Reilly, the Montgomery County Register of Wills.

About 1,600 invitations were sent out for the fund raiser 10 days ago, according to Gus Gentile, one of the local organizers of the event. By this morning, "we had 300 almost definite" acceptances, and more showed up at the door, he added.

One of the national campaign staff members, who asked not to be identified, said the twin events -- a $50-a-head party on the hotel's 16th floor and a $20-a-head version on the fourth floor -- "were never designed to be fund raisers. They were designed to identify Kennedy supporters in the area. f

But much of the conversation around the room before and after the 10 minutes of speeches and cheering showed that a substantial portion of those who attended were less than convinced by Kennedy's candidacy.

"I'm just here," said State Del. Nathaniel Exum, a Democrat from Prince George's who was given a free ticket to the rally. "I go to things like this, I go to the White House, too," said state central committee member Howard Thomas. "I'm not partial."

The crowd, tiny at the start of the evening, grew to fill about half the room for the half-hour when Kennedy was on hand. But it tapered off after the senator returned to the Capitol to hear the president's State of the Union address, leaving his daughter Kara and son Edward Jr. to greet the assembled guests.

But Caiola, a 43-year-old teacher from Silver Spring who yesterday afternoon was offered two free tickets to the gathering, said he dropped by "mostly out of curiosity -- we've all been waiting for Kennedy to make his appearance.

"But it almost seems the wrong moment, the wrong time for it. Carter seems to have proved himself a leader, he's taken a calm approach to the crisis in Iran and Afghanistan.

"If I were to vote today, I'd vote for Carter," he added. "I wouldn't have two months ago."