Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) launched the effort to salvage his presidential campaign yesterday with a combative and comprehensive attack on the Carter administration.

Kennedy's speech ranged from specific demands for action on domestic problems -- including immediate imposition of gasoline rationing and wage-price controls -- to a tough indictment of "helter-skelter militarism" overseas.

Speaking at Georgetown University amid hoopla similar to that surrounding his declaration of candidacy three months ago, Kennedy positioned himself more clearly than he has before as a liberal alternative to President Carter.

To the whoops and cheers of a friendly student audience, Kennedy said Carter's response to the Mideast situation is marked by "exaggerated dangers and empty symbols." One of the Symbols" Kennedy condemned most forcefully was Carter's proposal to revive draft registration.

The audience cheered again when Kennedy, whose campaign has been in a steady nosedive for three months, declared, "I reaffirm my candidacy for the presidency," and when he added, with a big smile, "I have only just begun to fight."

Kennedy came out fighting from the opening sentences of his speech, criticizing the tough anti-Soviet position Carter enunciated in his State of the Union address last week.

Kennedy belittled Carter's suggestion that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is the gravest threat to peace since World War II.

"Is it a graver threat than the Berlin blockade, the Korean War, the Soviet march into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, or Vietnam?" Kennedy asked. Exaggeration and hyperbole are the enemies of sensible foreign policy."

Kennedy said Carter "may have invited" the invasion of Afghanistan by refusing to stand firm last fall when Soviet troops were found to be deployed in Cuba. And he said the administration had ignored "warning signals" prior to the invasion.

Similarly, he suggested that Carter should bear the blame for the capture of the American hostages in Iran.

"This is a crisis that never should have happened," Kennedy said ". . . The administration was warned that the admission of the shah [to the United States for medical treatment] would provoke retaliation in Tehran. President Carter considered those warnings and rejected them . . . Had he made different decisions . . . our diplomats would still be going about their business in Tehran."

Saying that Carter's policy now "seems headed for a situation of permanent hostages," Kennedy criticized the administration's call for economic sanctions against Iran, which he said "will only propel Iran toward the Soviet orbit."

Kennedy's counterproposal was for U.S. support of a U.N. commission, which Secretary General Kurt Waldheim has discussed with Iran's leaders, "should begin its work only when every American hostage has come back safely . . . ."

Kennedy called Carter's response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan "hazardous" and "impractical" -- particularly the president's call for renewed draft registration.

Kennedy said registration now would "save only 13 days in the event of mobilization."

Instead of draft registration, which he called "a step across the threshold of Cold War II," Kennedy said Carter should respond to events in the Persian Gulf by reducing U.S. dependence on Mideast oil.

To do that, Kennedy said, the president should put gasoline rationing into effect "without delay."

Kennedy's campaign staff said a rationing program -- the one he proposes is similar to the "standby" plan Carter put forward, but then retracted last summer -- would reduce U.S. oil consumption by 24 percent over two years. This is about the amount of oil now imported from Persian Gulf countries.

The other blockbuster in the domestic portion of Kennedy's new definition of his candidacy was his call for immediate wage-and-price controls -- to place a lid for "as long as necessary" on increases in price, wages, profits, dividends, interest rates and rents.

White House press secretary Jody Powell refused specific comment on Kennedy's speech, except to say the results of last week's Iowa caucuses, in which Kennedy trailed the president 59 to 31 percent, had driven the senator "to the left."

A statement released by the Carter-Mondale Presidential Committee said the speech is Kennedy's "latest attempt to develop a rationale for his candidacy."

"Instead of being misled by this speech," the statement said, "people should ask Sen. Kennedy why he is making these proposals, some of which contradict his own record, at this time. The answer is obvious: Sen. Kennedy is seeking to deal with his own political problems rather than the complex realities of governing the nation."

The tough rhetoric of the specific proposals in Kennedy's speech reflect a last-ditch effort on his part to put life back into his presidential campaign and to gain the initiative in his policy debate with Carter.

Some of the language and ideas in Kennedy's speech yesterday are at odds with his platform in the first three months of his presidential campaign.

Previously, he has said that voluntary wage-price guidelines, if effectively managed, could control inflation without mandatory limits. While he has regularly said that gas rationing is preferable to taxes or price controls as a means of controlling consumption, he has not previously called for rationing.

In the early 1970s, when the draft was operating and the war in Vietnam was still under way, Kennedy was a liberal critic of the all-volunteer force, but he has supported it in peacetime.

Despite his caustic comments on Carter's announcement that the United States would use military force if necessary to protect Mideast oil supplies, Kennedy said essentially the same thing in an interview published in The Washington Post on Jan. 20.

If the Soviet Union interrupted Mideast oil supplies, Kennedy said then, "The U.S. would have to take whatever steps are necessary, including military steps, to ensure continuation of oil supply."

Although most of Kennedy's comments yesterday had a liberal color, he also attacked the president from the right, noting that Carter has built big budget deficits.

Kennedy's speech yesterday was effectively, a second declaration of candidacy -- an admission that his campaign to date has not worked and that he needed to find a new rationale for challenging an incumbent president from his own party.

In some ways, the Georgetown appearance evoked the mood of Kennedy's first declaration of candidacy in Boston last Nov. 7.

The candidate gave a smooth, carefully rehearsed performance. The supportive audience applauded in all the right places and a big crowd of relative, including his wife Joan, sisters Jean Smith and Eunice Shriver, sister-in-law Ethel Kennedy and an assortment of nieces and nephews, was on hand.

But the tough, specific tone of yesterday's talk was strickingly different from the quiet address last November, in which Kennedy eschewed specifics for a thematic discussion of the need for a stronger leadership in the White House.

The candidate's circumstances, of course, are now upside down. When he first declared, Kennedy was a presumptive favorite to take the Democratic nomination away from Carter. Now, Kennedy is a decided underdog, and his campaign has a serious money problem.

Campaign aides said they did not expect yesterday's speech to win overnight conversion among Democrats in Maine and New Hampshire, where the next Carter-Kennedy confrontations will occur. Instead, the staff hopes that the speech will prompt contributions from Kennedy's natural liberal constituency, providing enough money for Kennedy to stay in the race for at least a few more months.