"We never really lost," Vince Lombardi said. "We just ran out of time."

After his second victory over President Carter in five days, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy may be beginning to understand what Lombardi meant.

Kennedy nipped Carter in Michigan's Democratic caucuses yesterday and added that prize to the trophy he picked up last Tuesday in Pennsylvania. aKennedy came out of those two big Democratic states with 164 national convention delegates, nearly 10 percent of what is needed to win the nomination.

But Carter came out of those two states with 162 delegates and is coasting to the finish. Though Kennedy is showing he can win the big industrial states, he has not yet shown he can knock out Carter. Carter now has approximately 1,186 delegates to Kennedy's 666.5, with 1,666 needed for the nomination.

Michigan's caucuses were the most unusual creatures yet in this quirky election year. Party rules required those who wanted to participate to enroll in the party two months ago, and forced many of them to ante up $10.

So this was a battle of activists -- and of organizations. It pitted Kennedy's most powerful labor leader, the United Auto Worker's Douglas Fraser, against Carter's most potent mayor, Detroit's Coleman Young. The caucuses were also a potential referendum on the failed rescue mission in Iran and the deteriorating economy that has flattened Detroit's auto plants.

The caucuses apparently were neither. The outcome was expected to be close, and it was, another sign of the painful split that exists within the Democratic party. The next stop is Texas on May 3.