ONLY A FEW months ago you knew this: that if Ted Kennedy got into the race for president, it would be curtains for Jimmy Carter. The question was merely how big the margin of his win in Iowa would be before he went in and mopped up the president in New England, Kennedy country. Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts . . . it wasn't going to take very long. Poor Jimmy. So far, of course, none of this has come to pass. But the fact that it hasn't has not brought what you would call clarity to the political predicting and/or explaining scene. Instead, Sen. Kennedy's second defeat, right up there in Maine, is now being hailed as a kind of victory.

Lots of people are unable to understand this kind of analysis, but that is probably because they persist in viewing the Democratic contests as a three-way race (Kennedy, Carter, Brown), when, in fact, it is -- manifestly -- a four-way race. The fourth candidate's name is Expected. There is a rumor that it is Herschel Expected, but actually his first name is never given. All the voters are allowed to know about him is as follows. He is obviously a serious candidate and one who has a hell of an organization, since he manages to run in almost every contest. In Maine he finished better than the president (who "didn't do as well as Expected") but somewhat worse than Sen. Kennedy (who "did better than Expected").

Former-Senator Expected has been running for president for years, of course. You never get what are called hard data on his innumerable wins and losses, no 42 percent of the vote of three-point margins or things like that. It is generally just a tad impressionistic. But who cares? Surely not his devoted youthful volunteers who must have worked their stout little boyish (and girlish) heart out in Iosa and Maine. And surely not whoever it is who is bankrolling his astoudingly successful candidacy. For the fact is that 1980 is self-evidently his year. Expected is no longer, as he was in elections past, just one of the many contenders. He has become the man to beat. He is doing even better than expected.