Just as leaders in the Jackson wing of the Democratic Party were warning Sen. Edward Kennedy not to take them for granted, an unusual meeting at the White House affirmed the McGovern wing's embrace of Kennedy for ideological reasons.

The date was Oct. 24. Morris Dees, liberal activist lawyer from Montgomery, Ala., who gained national prominence as Sen. George McGovern's direct-mail fund-raiser in 1972, was breadfasting at the White House mess with top Carter aide Hamilton Jordan. Dees informed Jordan he was jumping Carter's ship and told him why. According to Jordans, Dees explained he preferred Kennedy's more liberal views on capital punishment, gun control and abortion.

Dees is not lonely at the converted Cadillac showroom that is Kennedy's Washington headquarters. He is joined by other key figures from the McGovern campaign, presumably for similar reasons. Kennedy's campaign looks more like McGovern revisited than a restoration of Camelot.

This is scarcely the reply wanted by the October newsletter of Coalition for a Democratic Majority, the organization of centrist Democrats born out of hostility to McGovern and closely associated with Sen. Henry M. Jackson. Author Ben Wattenberg, CDM's driving force, warned that Carter or Kennedy must "win over" moderate Democrats to get their votes in the primaries -- or in November.

Jackson, honorary co-chairman of CDM, was not consulted about the tough wording. Indeed, he is personally close to Kennedy and has advised friends that Teddy is "flexible" on such issues as national defense. Nevertheless, Jackson is alarmed by the McGovernized campaign and will seek an explanation from Kennedy.

Besides Dees, senior McGovern operatives filling similar slots for Kennedy include speech writer Robert Shrum, field operations director Carl Wagner, delegate-hunter Rick Stearnes and scheduler Steve Robbins. Kennedy would take more if he could get them. Unrequited feelers went to two prominent '72 McGovernites: Jeff Smith, now a McGovern aide, and Alan Smith, now a publisher of a political newsletter.

Few explained their preference for Kennedy or Carter in terms as explicit as Dees'. Actually, Kennedy's position is not markedly to the left of Carter on capital punishment and gun control, and only slightly more so on abortion. The point is that Dees perceives Kennedy as a kindred spirit.

So do the other McGovernites. Even if Kennedy is moving his rhetoric toward the center, they believe he shares their interventionism in domestic policy and accommodationism in foreign policy. Shrum, one of the party's most gifted speech writers, left the 1976 Carter campaign after nine days not only because he considered the future president "manipulative and deceptive," but because Carter was reluctant to cut defense spending or withdraw support from South Korea. At this writing, Kennedy speech writer Shrum has already surpassed his Carter tenure with no disillusionment in sight.

Other Kennedy staff appointments with less clear McGovern ties do not differ in spirit. Former senator Dick Clark, the most celebrated Carter defector, was a pioneer advocate of the "black Africa first" foreign policy now losing favor at the State Department. He was soon followed by Mark Schneider, an architect of State's human right policy (also now in decline). Energy-environmental lobbyist James Flug, who consideres Carter too cozy with oil, moved quickly into Kennedy's campaign.

This temporarily answers the questions posed by Stephen Bryen, editor of CDM's newsletter: "Who are the experts, advisers and specialists that Sen. Kennedy thinks ought to be brought into government? What would a Kennedy Cabinet look like?"

Carter's political advisers are delighted with such help in portraying Kennedy as the left's candidate. They chuckle that Dees, called by one White House aide "the most unpopular man in Alabama," locks up that state's primary for Carter. The other resurrected McGovernites will be used by Carter's agent to alienate the party's center from Kennedy.

Kennedy brother-in-law Stephen Smith has hinted privately that campaign appointments soon will join Kennedy's rhetoric in marching toward the center. To such overtures from both sides, Wattenberg told us: "We're all ears. We are receptive. But we're not virgins anymore." Feeling they were misled in 1976 by Jimmy Carter, CDM leaders want deeds this time.

How much difference CDM could make in a Carter-Kennedy race is doubtful. But enough Democrats share CDM's views to take seriously Wattenberg's newsletter warning: "If the Democratic party candidate turns a cold shoulder on CDM principles, [he could lose] millions of American voters. . . who determine the victor in a presidential contest." Carter's presidential record and Kennedy's early McGovernization mean those millions may vote Republican next November.