AS SEN. Edward Kennedy launches his campaign to take the presidency away from Jimmy Carter, the Republicans are standing by cheerfully. The GOP is like the pioneer woman in an Abe Lincoln story: While her husband fought for his life against a bear, she alternated between rooting for her husband and rooting for the bear.

Thanks to the Federal Election Campaign Act, the Republicans have a special reason to be happy. The draft-Kennedy groups, operating in a gray area of the law while Kennedy played hard-to-get, are in legal trouble which may affect his coming campaign. According to a complaint filed by the Carter-Mondale committee with the Federal Election Commission, the Kennedyites have been guilty of talking to each other across state lines for several months. They have also allegedly pursued a common strategy and cooperated on money matters. And this, according to the Carter interpretation, means that they may have violated the legal limits on campaign contributions. It may also reduce the amount of money wealthy donors can give to the Kennedy campaign once it is officially authorized.

Under the new, improved, scrubbed, scoured, fumigated, post-Watergate morality, cooperation can be dangerous.

In August, you see, the FEC had decided that a draft committee can accept $5,000 from a single donor, while a candidate-authorized committee can't accept more than $1,000. Since the draft-Kennedy committees aren't formally affiliated with each other, the Kennedyites thought a donor could give $5,000 each to several of them.

While platoons of lawyers mull over the legal tangle, Sen. Kennedy still cannot talk to his supporters, and they cannot talk to each other. The problem would have been simplified if all of them had entered Trappist monestaries until Kennedy officially becomes a candidate.

Although Republicans can gloat over all this, they cannot cheer too loudly, because they are having problems of their own. For example, the steering committee of Ronald Reagan's political action group, Citizens for the Republic, held a big meeting in Los Angeles last January. The prospective candidate, already the Republican front-runner, was there. But Reagan later remarked that he and his supporters had been "very careful" not to make the meeting a planning session for the 1980 campaign, because they might have problems with federal election laws if they spoke too freely. Their approach might be called modified-monastic.

George Bush's Houston headquarters has even adapted its office floor plan to the election act. Bush's fundraising operation is segregated on one floor, because some fund-raising costs are exempt from election law spending limits. The political operation designed to win Texas delegates for Bush is also segregated because of the spending limit for each state. Segregated floor plans evidently make for more scrupulous accounting.

You can always trust the accountants, of course, to find clever ways to evade the spending limits. When campaigning in New Hampshire, for example, a candidate and his entourage may stay overnight in a neighboring New England state so that lodging bills can be charged against the other state's limit rather than the $300,000 New Hampshire ceiling. What happens if a candidate goes over the limit? The Federal Election Commission's penalty for the 1976 big spenders was mild; they had to pay back to the Treasury the money used in exceeding the limits. It is always conceivable, of course, that the FEC might get tough and start having federal marshals chase candidates over the border to Vermont or Massachusetts whenever they seem close to the limit. Painting out a sign

Most effects of the election laws are not accidental. Common Cause, which advertised the law as a "reform" measure and pushed it through Congress in the wake of Watergate, intended to place severe restrictions on election campaigns. But so successful has Common Cause been that some observers are beginning to ask, "What if they gave an election and nobody came?"

Even after the Supreme Court struck down major parts of the election law early in 1976, enough remained to cause serious problems for the presidential candidates that year. Each person was limited to a contribution of $1,000 per candidate for the primary period and $1,000 per candidate for the general election. An exception was the candidates themselves, who could give unlimited sums to their own campaigns; but that did not help very much unless the candidate happened to be wealthy. Presidential candidates who accepted public funding were required to abide by strict spending limits, and they had little choice about whether to accept public funds; if they refused, they had to raise all of their money within the contribution limits.

A glance at the major problems of 1976 shows what may be expected in 1980 unless the election act is repealed or drastically amended.

In the spring of 1976, congressional delay over amendments to the election act resulted in suspension of public funding during the presidential primaries. Nearly every campaign that had relied on public funding was faced with a serious financial crisis. The Republican candidates did not quite live up to predictions that they would be "flying around in Piper Cubs to save money in the later primaries" (President Ford, after all, had Air Force One at his command). But Ronald Reagan's forces were living very close to the margin, initially because of the contribution limits and other restrictions and later because of the suspension of public funding. At one point, their leased campaign plane could not take off until the morning's contribution mail was opened at headquarters and the airline thus assured that it would be paid.

The one Democratic campaign able to survuve the funding suspension, the Carter campaign, did so only through bank loans guaranteed by the candidate and through substantial credit from Gerald Rafshoon's advertising agency. Lacking Carter's resouces, the other candidates were unable to overcome their handicap by obtaining large contributions or loans -- thanks to the election act.

In the crucial Pensylvania primary, Rep. Morris Udall's campaign had no money for much of the television time it wanted to buy. Sen. Birch Bayh already had suspended his campaign by that time. Myer Feldman, who led Bayh's fund-raising efford, said the campaign act "makes it impossible to campaign in all the primaries and do an adequate job," adding: "For all the candidates to be able to present their positions adequately, you have to make it possible for them to raise $10 million. And that's impossible today. It just cannot be done."

In the fall campaign, the spending limits imposed on Carter and Ford resulted in severe curtailment of campaign activity, especially at the local level. The basic items for a volunteer campaign -- brochures, buttons, bumper stickers -- were in short supply. Local and state party committees could not make up for this because they, too, were subject to tight spending limits.

In New York, a Republican county chairman was photographed as he stood on a ladder and painted the name of Gerald Ford out of a campaign sign. A local party committee legally could spend no more than $1,000 on behald of its national ticket, and the Nassau County committee had gone well over the limit with its signs. So Joseph Margiotta, the county chairman, climbed a ladder and went to work.

The spending limits also encouraged Democrats to set up independent, unauthorized committees. A leader of one of those groups, Health Volunteers for Carter-Mondale, said: "I can't use Carter's speeches or press conferences in our literature." Alluding to the collusion problem, he added, "I don't know what the Carter campaign is doing in the health area and I'm scared to find out."

In other words our campaigns have become so pure that campaigners often cannot reach the voters, cannot talk to each other, or both. The 35-cent discrepancy

The campaign act's effects on insurgent candidates are even more devastating. Georgia State Sen. Julian Bond decided against a 1976 presidential race largely because the act made it impossible for him to raise enough money. "Julian's base," his campaign manager explained, "is the black community, and it's not a rich community."

Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland decided against running for president as an independent in 1976 partly because of campaign-act restrictions. Eugene McCarthy did run as an independent -- and was wiped out.

McCarthy was forced to run with a tiny staff made up almost entirely of volunteers. Starved for funds by the election act during the campaign, the McCarthy committees have been harassed by the Federal Election Commission ever since -- with compliance actions, audits, even a lawsuit. Jonathan Gallant of Seattle, treasurer of a state McCarthy committee, was amazed to find that the FEC was worried about a 35-cent discrepancy in his disclosure reports. Gallant devised an explanation for The Weekly of Seattle:

"The 35 cents, he confessed, had been laundered through Mexican banks and set aside in order to purchase the soul of a prominent Washington state politician. This project was dropped when the committee could not discover a prominent Washington state politician worth as much as 35 cents."

Then, said Gallant, he and his collaborators "planned to use their southern connections to borrow several million from Atlanta banks, using the laundered 35 cents as collateral for the first loan, the first loan as collateral for the second loan, and so on. They hoped to trade their way up to an airplane." A new corruption

Does the campaign act have something to show for the grief it has caused candidates and volunteers? Has it reduced special-interest influence on elections? Has it prevented corruption?

Not exactly. In fact, the law has encouraged a new kind of corruption: giving money in someone else's name in order to make a candidate eligible for matching funds from the government. This was done on a large scale in the 1976 Milton Shapp campaign; there have been five criminal convictions connected with the Shapp case. Moreover, a little-known presidential candidate from upstate New York, a cab driver, submitted for matching funds many contributions which had not been made at all. He was caught, indicted for fraud and convicted. The federal government requested the pleasure of his company at Allenwood for two years.

The campaign act also makes it easier than before for business and labor to put money into politics. A special provision, promoted by labor lobbyists, allows unions and corporations to subsidize the operating costs of their political action committees (PACs). That provision is largely responsible for the rapid growth of corporate PACs which increased from 89 in 1974 to 784 in 1978. PACs of all kinds accounted for 17 percent of the money raised by House candidates in 1974, before the current law took effect. By 1978 they accounted for 25 percent of the funds received by House candidates.

The proportion contributed by special interests probably has not grown as much as these figures indicate, because some corporate PACs now give legally what their parent corporations gave illegally before the law was passed. Yet it seems clear that the campaign law, far from reducing special-interest influence, has actually increased it.

In fact, a 1976 amendment to the act, one which slipped through quietly, allows a political party committee to accept direct corporate, labor and bank contributions when such contributions are earmarked for building or buying an office facility. The republicans recently built a new wing on their national headquarters with the help of donations from Atlantic Richfield, the First Tennessee Bank (Memphis), Getty Oil, Houston Natural Gas, the Panax Corp, and Westinghouse.

The relative influence of corporate and labor PACs has increased partly because the limits on individual contributions have reduced what used to be a sort of countervailing power against the special interests. This is not to say, however, that the "fat cats" have been put out of business. They are thinner than they used to be, but they're still around. The campaign act just forces them to play games to get around or behind or under the contribution limits.

Thus in 1976 The Wall Street Journal identified a major Carter contributor as a 5-year-old girl. The little fat cat and her 7-year-old brother had each given $1,000 to the Carter campaign. So had their mother and father and five older siblings. The story let someone to complain to the FED (someone always does), and the commission reached a Solomon-like decision: The Carter campaign had to refund contributions to the children who were 7 or younger, but children 14 or over could contribute.

Henry Kimelman, who was finance chairman for Sen. Frank Church's 1976 presidential campaign, remarked, "The new fat cat is the guy who can raise $10,000 each from his wife, his kids, his mistress and his girl friend."

All of this proves what should have been obvious to those who drafted the campaign act: Its contribution limits work against its disclosure provisions. People evade, or violate outright, a law that limits their constitutional right to organize politically.