The bumper sticker in Cambridge is succinct: "Vote for Jimmy Carter, Free Joan Kennedy."

The New York Times column by Gail Sheehy is even blunter: "Teddy Kennedy props up a wife who suffers from alcoholism to endorse him in public, thought the strain on her delicate balance must be great."

There is, in this campaign, an almost unanimous vision of Joan Kennedy as delicate, even fragile -- a victim. She is seen as a "wronged wife," given to drink, and now callously propped up for the campaign photos.

The image has brought great sympathy to Joan . . . . wherever she has gone, but it has almost done in her husband. In poll after poll, the ticklish question of Kennedy's "personal life" has been raised, and the lowered like a boom on his hopes.

It is in a sense, ironic. Joan Kennedy has come a long way from the "poor me, pour me another drink" days. Back then, when she was asked for a one-word self-description, she picked "vulnerable."

Today, after spending two years learning how to teach music and how to like herself, she chooses the words "strong and self-confident." At times, she sounds as shaky as the Little Engine That Could. But the woman calls herself a "survivor," not a victim.

So, for her own reasons as well as her husband's campaign, the Kennedy people have been carefully, slowly testing a new face on their marriage. The story of the alcoholic and absent wife has become the sage of the Independent Woman. The tale of the philandering and separated husband has become the evolution of the Full-Time Father. The rockiest years of their marriage have been remarketed as a Growth Experience, and they are now reconstituted as a Semi-Liberated Couple.

When Joan Kennedy last week gave her first full speech to a sympathetic audience of women for Kennedy in Boston, she described her life this way: "Two years ago, as one step in my journey back to health, I returned to college to enroll in a master's program in music education -- and through this program I have gained the inner self-confidence that comes from knowing that when I receive my graduate degree I will be a professional in my chosen field."

She tied her journey to health into that mass migration called the women's movement. Then she wove her husband's experience into that same trip. "Perhaps the best result of my absence has been how close my husband Ted has grown to Patrick; in these months he has often been both mom and dad to Patrick," she said.

"He learned that he could cut back on the number of hours he worked in the Senate in order to be home with Patrick when he was sick or to watch him in a play or cheer him in a game and still be better off both at work and at home for the richer balance in his life."

As she portrayed it, their family life was not a shambles, but a complex and troubled backdrop to Ted Kennedy's belief that "human needs must take priority in this world. . . ."

She expressed their experience in terms that are more familiar and acceptable to people of our time. It is the version she prefers.

There were, of course, glaring omissions. Joan's collaborator in this rewrite was Doris Kearns, the historian, author and wife of Kennedy speech writer Richard Goodwin. She is wise in the ways of campaigning, and together they edited out the most painful aspects of the estrangement.

But you can be sure that Joan will take this speech on the road. The Kennedy people know that only Joan, campaigning and well, can diffuse the "personal life" issue. Only Joan can save the "women's vote."

And only Joan can do what Ted clearly cannot do: talk about his feelings. As she says, "I can talk a little more at ease about certain things in our lives than Ted can, but then I think any American woman is better at that than any American male. That's not unusual."

The current version of the Kennedy martial saga is no more or less complete than the old one. There are many who feel this wife is being "used." But the revised, calculated image of Joan Kennedy has one very distinct advantage over the old one. It fits Joan Kennedy's tentative new self-image.

"Along the way, I learned self-sufficiency," she says. "I learned how to manage myself, my own life."

Joan may not be all the way out of the woods yet, but she refuses to be anybody's victim.