Jimmy Carter is sending early season's greetings and energy-saving gadgets to every New England household in a $3 million campaign that critics say is aimed at heating the president's cooling candidacy in this region.

Just as November's late autumn frost begins to blanket this six-state, oil-dependent area, 4.5 million householders will find on their doorsteps slick 16-page illustrated brochures detailing 11 tips for energy conservation.

The nation's earliest primary states will be on the receiving end of a month-long energy conservation media blitz while the White House treats every New England home to "flow controller" designed to save hot water and cut fuel bills.

The Department of Energy announced the administration's "low-cost/no-cost" conservation campaign here today and invited region businesses to contribute half the cost of the program.

Use of the plastic gadgets on shower heads and faucets, the DOE says, could result in an annual fuel savings of about 110,000 barrels of oil a day.

"This marks a major shift from informing people about conservation to actually giving them something to do," said DOE's Joseph L. Barrow. "We've providing people with some very easy ways to solve 25 percent of their energy problems."

Sen. John Durkin (D-N.H.) expressed another view of the DOE program: "It's a campaign stunt and it's too late.

"It's going to take more than trinkets to sway New Hampshire voters when people are paying 90 cents a gallon for fuel because Carter bungled the price-supply equation," said Durkin, a steady critic of the president's energy policy.

"It's a political gimmick," added Massachusetts State Sen. Sharon Pollard, chairman of the legislature's Energy Development Caucus and leader of the draft-Kennedy drive here.

"I'd rather see federal money spent on developing solar technology and mass transit," she said. "The whole plan just seems trivial and it comes at an obvious time when the president needs to tell people he's concerned about energy."

"This was never put together as a political program," countered DOE's Barrow. "It is a legitimate conservation effort in a region of the country most affected by heating oil price and supply."

Said presidential assistant Anne Wexler, head of the White House Energy Conservation Unit: "It is incorrect and cynical to ascribe this campaign to politics."

Besides sending them the free water-saving devices, DOE will urge New Englanders to insulate their hot water heaters and set them at lower temperatures, insulate attic doors and heating ducts and caulk window edges.

Over the last two years about 500,000 of the flow-controllers have been distributed by the New England Electric System, a corporate umbrella for utilities in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.