Rummage around the scrapheap of 1980's political wisdom and you'll come up with such relic s as these newspaper headlines, published in successive weeks last fall: Kennedy Gaining In Poll Trounces Carter In N.H. and Iowa And Poll Shows Carter Trails on Abilities Kennedy Given High Ratings as a Strong Leader, in Contrast to President's Poor Image

Had we handicappers of press and polls been right, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy today would be in an enviable position instead of facing political extinction. Even Kennedy's present dismal standing in his race for the Democratic nomination would not signal almost certain defeat.

At this point in the primary process nearly 2,000 (or two-thirds) of the delegates to the Democratic convention in New York in August have yet to be chosen. By the political logic of the past, Kennedy should be entering his strongest areas, the places where he ought to garner the most votes.

Ahead are contests in six of the most populous states: New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, New Jersey and Ohio. They hold 1,189 of the 1,666 delegate votes needed for the nomination. Those are states where President Carter never has been popular among the Democratic constituencies -- labor, Jews and liberals among them -- and where strong early pressure was put on Kennedy to run.

But to suggest that Carter still may stagger while Kennedy somehow miraculously rises defied all reality. While the time hasn't quite arrived for Kennedy's presidential obituary, it's not too eary for an anatomy of his failure, perhaps the greatest fall in U.S. political annals.

It's common to say Kennedy has been losing because of what the press calls the "character issue" -- Chappaquiddick and whispers about other women and his marriage. Obviously these have been highly damaging, but they were present during all the years when Kennedy consistenly topped the political popularity surveys. And it wasn't that Chappaquiddick had been ignored by the press; stories about it and new investigative effots were published repeatedly. (When I went to New Hampshire for the first time this campaign I checked to see what I had written from there exactly four years earlier. Prominently displayed then in the Post on the eve of the 1976 primary was a long story, spread across eight columns of the paper. It was about the unanswered Chappaquiddick questions, based upon eight months of reporting by a special assignment team. I suspect you could have found the same thing four years before that.

Nor had the public forgotten it. In the 11 years since Chappaquiddick, there has never been a time of interviewing voters, anywhere in the country, without having doubts raised about that tragedy -- and many others involving Kennedy as well. Invariably, people hoped Kennedy would never run: they feared he'd be killed, they worried what another Kennedy assassination would do to the country, they expressed concerns about Kennedy's private life and Chappaquiddick. Kennedy had trouble written all over him.

Yet he continued to top all the polls.

These are facts. Here, some speculation.

It's always been my belief, polls to the contrary, that for Kennedy to become president he would have to permit people to forgive him. Not to be metaphysical about it, he would have to humble himself, to engage in an act of contrition.

In political terms, that means showing a willingness to take a secondary place in a national campaign before the voters. Had Kennedy run behind Hubert Humphrey, for instance, in 1968, after his brother Robert's murder, I've no doubt Richard Nixon would not have been elected. For Kennedy, service as vice president would have defused much of the festering personal emotions against his "character" and his "staability." He also could have taken a secondary position four years later under George McGovern, but he declined.

Whether Kennedy was seduced by the aura of his everywhere-pronounced success, his certain invincibility, is something only he can answer. But neither he nor his aides seem to have doubted he would win once he became a candidate. The debate was over if he should run and when, not why and how and on what ground. Certainly, he was unable to articulate his reasons for running when he first emerged as a certain candidate under CBS newsman Roger Mudd's firm but fair questioning.

For the rest, fate played a cruel trick and Kennedy found himself falling afoul of the work of the four "P's" -- the press, the polls, the party, the public. The seizure of the hostages two days before his presidential candidacy announcement sealed his campaign fate. It enraged the American public, diverted attention from mistakes, foreign and domestic, elevated the weakest president in memory into a symbol of national unity, brought all the critical spotlight to bear on Kennedy's every utterance and record, both private and public, while none shone on Carter.

When the Iranian mobs shouted death to Carter and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini urged Americans to turn the president out of the White House, Carter's nomination, and probably his reelection, were assured. Now the Harry Truman syndrome took hold, and the polls, the press, the public and the party members who had urged an alternative rallied behind the underdog president and cheered him even as they deprecated and dismissed the challenger, only yesterday everyone's winner.

Postscript: The point has been made, but deserves repeating, that in humiliating, crushing defeat Kennedy has conducted himself with rare grace and gallantry. He campaigns without bitterness, rancor, petulance and complaint.In the face of an increasingly ugly kind of public glee at his sudden crash, he continues to make his case with seriousness, good will and humor. Forget the contrition business, but at least grant him deserved respect.