WHILE WALTER FAUNTROY has been off tending to other business abroad, an important campaign he still claims to lead here at home -- for ratification of the D.C. amendment -- is in sorry shape. Nothing has diminished the case for granting District residents the same rights of citizenship other Americans have, nor is there much disagreement on this fundamental point among those who live here. But the story of the District of Columbia still needs to be told carefully and fully to the rest of the country. That is where the fate of the amendment will be determined.

Instead, an alarming amount of time, effort and money has been squandered while local groups fight over who will call which shots in this drive. Either this stops -- or all the effort that went into House and Senate approval of the amendment will have been for nothing. There is plenty of work for all to do, but it should be in a coordinated, temperate, state-by-state educational campaign. State legislators and voters around the country are generally unfamiliar with the congressional representation issue; they know little about the people who live in Washington and who work in all sorts of jobs, pay federal and local income taxes and serve in the armed forces, yet who are not allowed a part in the levying of taxes or the making of other laws.

National groups such as the League of Women Voters have been, and continue to be, effective in getting the D.C. message out to people around the country. In an attempt to rekindle the drive and attract new national understanding, the D.C. League is sponsoring a rally Thursday afternoon in Lafayette Park; emphasis will be on ways in which word can be spread in the states. Other national organizations with affiliates and lobbying experience in the state capitals need fresh encouragement, too. Republicans, Democrats, business and labor leaders, blacks and whites may have to restrain personal and political ambitions so the amendment can be presented accuately as a matter of basic justice, not as a racial or partisan issue.

In the past, the important period of time for ratification of amendments has been the first two years after congressional passage. One year is already gone. Any more upstaging, internecine warfare or ill-planned invasions of state capitals will do severe damage as the search for votes necessarily moves from the friendliest legislatures to those more susceptible to misleading or wrong information. In all, there are 6 years -- and 32 states -- to go.