The cryptic but unmistakable signal that there would have to be a Kennedy campaign in 1980 went out in New York as early as April, and it came from the senator himself as he met at Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel with New York Attorney General Robert Abrams and his executive assistant, Ethan Geto.

"He gave us the formula," Geto recalled.

"He said he did not expect to run and told us not to do anything premised on the hope that he would run. But he used words like 'drift' and 'malaise' gripping the country and said he shared a lot of our anxiety that a conservative Republican might capture the White House.

"And he said the tradition of his two brothers was not reflected in this Democratic presidency."

In the murky language of professional politicians, where one thing is said and means another, where tone and nuance matter as much as the definitions of words, Kennedy's message was enough.

Geto, operating with Abrams, is now an important part of the draft-Kennedy movement. The movement does not have a declared candidate and does not have one person in command, so it is not called a campaign organization. But it has all the earmarks.

There are locally inspired organizations in at least 24 states, most of them run by people with campaign experience. There are at least two communications networks linking many of the groups -- one informal and the other through the International Association of Machinists. And there is, to a large extent, a coordinated strategy, with one group helping another whose needs are more immediate.

Those organizing the committees tend not to be statewide political heavyweights like Robert Abrams but local politicians and activists: members of the Buffalo City Council in upstate New York, a few state senators in Colorado, unconforming Democratic Party officials in Dade County, Fla. On the periphery, in states like New Jersey, are more high-powered elected people who are friendly, but unwilling to become involved until Kennedy makes up his mind.

Fund-raising is the primary goal of most at the moment, and right now few have raised or spent more than $3,000 to $5,000. Florida (about $100,000, raised) and New Hampshire (about $250,000 budgeted) are exceptions.

In at least one state, New York, efforts have also concentrated on a so far successful attempt to engineer the timing and procedures of the statewide primary to suit a Kennedy candidacy.

Estimates vary as to the Kennedy movement's capabilities, indpendent of a full-fledged Kennedy-operated campaign. Some of the participants are called "paper tigers" or, in the words of some Jimmy Carter allies, "people always identified with losers. The entire movement is criticized as too close to labor and peopled by too many liberals to be of wide appeal.

The first test will be the Florida state Democratic caucuses on Oct. 13 when Carter and a Kennedy organization will put up competing slates of supporters to represent them at a November straw-vote convention in St. Petersburg.

Judging from the Carter campaign's preparations for that contest, the Kennedy forces are getting respect. Evidence:

Carter plans to spend $300,000 on the effort, sources say, though the official figure is closer to $100,000.

Several top White House operatives, including appointments secretary Phil Wise and press secretary Jody Powell, are being dispatched to help out in Florida in one way or another. The president, his wife, his mother and his son and Andy Young have all campaigned in Florida recently and Vice President Mondale is scheduled. Florida elected officials, civic leaders and others have been scheduled into Washington for mass White House briefings on SALT and other issues.

In the past six months, the White House has given out major and minor appointments and assignments to at least 25 Floridians, including Reubin Askew, the former governor; Bob Graham, the governor; James Williams, the former lieutenant governor; Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, various state legislators, leaders of the NAACP, the chairman of the state Democratic Party and leaders of the Cuban-American community. (SECTION) even Floridians were appointed to the John F. Kennedy Center Advisory Committee on the Arts in the month of March alone, out of 89 members throughout the country.

The Carter campaign's Florida director, Jay Hakes, sees the contest as "critical. We need to get 51 percent" of both the elected "slates" and the 700 or so delegates largely handpicked by pro-Carter party regulars.

But it is hard to run against a Kennedy, they are learning, especially when he is undeclared. "We're against an idealized candidate," said an aide to Gov. Graham, who is helping Carter there. "Kennedy organizers will give their own views on issues before audiences," said Hakes, "and they may or may not represent Kennedy's. They can be anti-nuke and pro-nuke, against federal funding of abortion and for it. They scattershot out to those groups."

The draft-Kennedy operation in Florida is among the most mature of the lot. Mike Abrams, a former Carter supporter and Dade County Democratic chairman, is in charge. There are seven staff members, a professional public relations man and an acknowledged budget goal of $100,000, which some observers said is about a third of what the group hopes to spend.

That group, too, is learning the inherent advantages in a Kennedy candidacy. Last leek, because of all the publicity generated by the senator's comments, draft-Kennedy officials were on local television almost every day.

In the nation as a whole, the Kennedy movements looks like this:

here are at least 24 state committees in varying stages of organization. At least 25 persons -- concentrated in Florida, New Hampshire and Iowa -- devote full or nearly fulltime to the effort. The effort, at this point, consists mostly of fund-raising or getting ready for fund-raising. One directmail effort has already taken place and a second is planned by an Oregon committee. Californians have run two full-page newspaper ads at $11,000 each urging Kennedy to run.

The coordination among them is informal, but appears to tread perilously close to the fringes of federal election laws that make an important distinction between "affiliated" committees and independent ones.

The most obvious thread leads back to the Washington offices of the International Association of Machinists, whose president, William Winpisinger, is an ardent Kennedy supporter.

The union has provided start-up money for some groups.And at least a dozen of the Kennedy groups in the states include among their leaders a local or state political operative from the union. These men consult on a regular basis with Marjorie Fife, a political organizer based in the union's Washington headquarters.

The Illinois Citizens for Kennedy is illustrative. The co-chairmen are William Luking, a Chicago lawyer and liberal activist, and Charles Williams, Illinois legislative representative for the Machinists.

Williams said the group came together, in part, through Machinists headquarters. "I got a call from Washington saying some people from Illinois were for Kennedy and wanted to contact us."

Since then, Williams said, he has been in regular communications with Fife and others at the Machinists, getting "absolutely any kind of help I want. They tell me what's going on around the country."

Fife, in turn, confers with non-union Kennedy operatives, like Geto in New York. Geto says he is in "daily contact" with Mike Abrams in Florida, Matthew Wanning in Iowa, Dudley in New Hampshire and Mark Siegel, the former Carter White House aide now working for Kennedy's election.

Though everyone involved declares that they do not work in concert from state to state, there is a striking confluence of strategy.

California, New Jersey and New York organizations, for example, are planning on pumping money they raise into Florida, New Hampshire and Iowa, to help Kennedy forces there. "I don't think that what anybody is doing in any state other than Florida, Iowa and New Hampshire is particularly meaningful," said Thomas Pollak, who is raising money out of Los Angeles. "The battle is going to be won or lost there."

While the Kennedy movement as a whole may contain the nucleus of what could become a campaign organization, there are minefields to cross in the meantime.

One of them is the law. Because the Kennedy organizations are formally unaffiliated with each other, a wealth contributor or political action committee (like the Machinists) could give up to $5,000 to each organization -- a contribution to the movement as a whole of as much as $250,000 once all 50 states are signed on. That is 25 times the amount any other national campaign could accept from any committee.

If the Kennedy organizations are ruled by the Federal Election Commission to be affiliated, no one could give more than $5,000 to the entire movement. That could harm their early fund-raising.

The FEC has never clearly defined "affiliation." Coordination, control and consultation are, however, among the criteria it considers.

Some Kennedy supporters also fear that largely uncontrolled organizations could get out of hand, causing embarrassment or chaos for a formal campaign, should it ever materialize, and saddling the pros Kennedy would undoubtedly hire with an extra burden.