Here's a classic political scene: the candidate steps out of his plane into a frigid northern gale, sloshed across the snowy tarmac, and shakes the chilled hands of the voters who will decide the first major confrontation of the presidential election year.

If it sounds lide a traditional picture of the New Hampshire primary, take another look at the dateline. It was the snow of northern Iowa that Edward M. Kennedy encountered this week, and the people he was pursuing -- the people who will render the first formal judgment on his challenge to President Carter -- were the voters of Iowa.

For the 1980 election, Iowa has become New Hampshire. In the consciousness of the political community, Iowa's precinct caucuses next Jan. 21 have replaced the New Hampshire primary as the "first real test" of the election year.

"First real test" is what Kennedy has called Iowa, and that is why he has spent more time in this friendly, prosperous state than anywhere else since he announced his challenge to the incumbent president from his own party.

Not that Kennedy is predicting victory here. To hear him tell it, in fact, his chances are bleak. "We know the Carter-Mondale campaign has an effective organization here," he told supporters in Mason City. "We have to make up a lot of ground."

Should anyone believe such poormouthing from Kennedy, who leads Carter 2 to 1 in opinion polls here? Not entirely, because the president should have time to make up the gap. Still, Kennedy has a point.

It's been said that three things will matter in the January caususes -- organization, organization, and organization.

That means that organizing a dedicated corps of supporters who can be relied upon to turn out for the caucuses is more important here than issues, personality, or popularity.

Just ask Jimmy Carter. In January 1976, Carter stood at 1 percent in the Iowa polls; in the caucuses that month he led all candidates, taking 28 percent of the vote.

"This isn't just a case where you have to get people to go cast a vote," says Bill Gluba, a Kennedy worker. "We have to find people we can rely on to go out on a cold Monday night in January and spend five hours fighting for our man.

"You don't just turn 'em out," Gluba says. "You have to turn 'em on."

Normally, turning voters on would be made to order for Kennedy, who combines a genuine celebrity's aura with a rousing speaking style. But this week at least, the candidate, reluctant to attack a president who is dealing with an international crisis, has generally been less than rousing on the stump.

The problem was most noticeable Wednesday night, when Kennedy had a rally and a press conference on the schedule just after Carter's nationally televised press conference on Iran.

Although the candidate slipped successfully away from cameramen who did their darnedest to capture him watching the president on TV, he refused to answer any questions except those he could answer by reaffirming his support for Carter on Iran. He made a similarly lifeless speech to farmers in Clear Lake Thursday morning.

Then in a speech sponsored by the "Robert F. Kennedy Lecture Series," he found at least a partial solution. The first words out of his mouth were a forceful declaration of "our national unity" on Iran. He quickly added that the hostage situation should not be allowed to cut off debate on other national issues.

Having offered that caveat, he launched into a relatively fiery blast at Carter for weak leadership on energy, the economy, farm problems, and women's rights. The student audience gave him a hearty reception.

That was his last stop in Iowa this week. Immediately after his speech to the students, he departed on a scheduled trip to the West Coast.