Campaign Trial

Just as the two 727 jets carrying presidential candidate Edward M. Kennedy and his enormous campaign entourage were taking off one day last week for a flight to Manchester N.H., somebody noticed a problem.

The planes were too heavy, by a few thousand pounds each, to land at Manchester's small airport. Consternation ensued. Walkie-talkies crackled. Finally, a decision was made.

Above Manchester, both planes circled, flaps down, for a quarter-hour -- a maneuver that burned up thousands of pounds of jet fuel and left the planes light enough to land. Kennedy then motored into town and delivered a speech that hit hard on the importance of energy conservation.

There is no grand lesson in this incident -- it could have happened on any campaign -- but the picture of a candidate who has to practice waste in order to preach conservation may define the almost absurd length to which candidates will go to get people interested in a campaign that is in full swing four months before the first primary votes will be cast and a year before election day.

How to get people's attention -- to m ake them listen to his message that President Carter has failed as a leader -- is one of the questions Kennedy is trying to answer in these opening days of his drive for the White House.

"Look, I don't know how you get people to listen," the relaxed, confident senator said in an interview during his eight-state campaign trip last week. "We've got to explore a lot of ways to get the message across."

The problem is less troublesome, of course, for a Kennedy than for most other politicians. Just by showing up somewhere the senator is certain to get attention, because his family history makes him a celebrity on a par with the best-known movie stars and singers. His main task is to see to it that the substance of his campaign is not lost in the glitter.

Speaking of singers, Kennedy made a "campaign" stop Friday at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

How this helped "get the message across" is unclear, since the senator said almost nothing as he was ushered past such relics as Hank Williams' guitar and Elvis Presley's golden Cadillac. But it made for good photos and newsfilm.

Speaking of photos and newsfilm, Kennedy set up a classic "photo opportunity" of the candidate-as-family-man variety Saturday when he traveled to Connecticut to visit his two oldest children, 20-year-old Kara and 19-year-old Teddy Jr., who both attend Connecticut colleges.

Kennedy's wife Joan, who has lived apart from him for nearly two years, joined her husband for the day, setting the stage for pictures of the united family enjoying an afternoon together.

Joan Kennedy chatted with a few reporters at the end of the day, and in that relatively casual situation she seemed much less nervous, less fragile, than she looks to be in televised interviews. She said quite cheerfully that she plans to campaign with her husband, starting "fairly soon."

When they are getting the message across, candidates like to word the message so as not to offend any sizeable voting bloc.

Thus when Kennedy quoted Thomas Wolfe in a campaign speech Wednesday, his ghost writers did a little editing to avoid offending feminists.

Wolfe had written, "So then to every man his chance to work, to be himself." When Kennedy quoted the line, it came out, "So then to all persons their chance . . ."

To see to it that Kennedy gets attention his every step -- except at the fund-raising parties, which are often private -- is tracked by a pack of 50 traveling journalists, most of whom are delighted to have the Kennedy assignment, but feel a professional obligation to gripe about it nonetheless.

One of the major gripes is that we are herded about at each stop very much like cattle or sheep; in some towns, in fact, the place we are herded to is called the "press pen." The reporters show their disdain for farm animal treatment by making farm animal noises. Some have mastered a remarkably realistic "moo."

When Kennedy arrived at a fancy hotel in Nashville, the bellboy leading us to the "pen" mistakenly walked into a room where a society reception was being held. The look of amazement and disgust on the faces of the be-jeweled matrons when a ragged bunch of men and women came mooing, braying, and oinking into their elegant gathering will survive in the memory long after most of this campaign has been forgotten.