ONE YEAR AGO it was different. Nobody thought Jimmy Carter could beat a rabbit with a canoe paddle, let alone beat Edward Kennedy in a contest for the Democratic nomination. Well, now we know. And Sen. Kennedy knows. Only there is another difference now. Sen. Kennedy over the past year's journey has learned much and profited much, and he knows a lot of other, important things he didn't seem to know before. The campaign, which ended in his defeat and culminated in last night's convention oration, has been a kind of progress for him. Progress (as in Pilgrim's) -- a progress in articulation.

In some dreadful way, the tone for Sen. Kennedy's early campaign was set in his tongue-tied, uh-strewn autumn interview with Roger Mudd on CBS. And the key exchange was that, noted by all, in which Mr. Kennedy, asked why he wished to be president, came across as his most baffled. That was the lapse we all talked about, and although it put down to "inarticulateness," in the sense of just a kind of muzziness of grammar and thought, at some level it said more to people: it said that Sen. Kennedy, as Kennedy family critics had long complained, was merely seeking to appropriate an office and an honor he believed to be his by entitlement, by inheritance really, and that his candidacy was thus an act of arrogance, not of public service in any normal sense.

And so that very combination of forces -- public and private, media and citizen -- that had built him up, inflating both his reputation and his prospects, let him have it. It "showed" him. It said he hadn't paid his dues, hadn't leveled on important questions on his past, hadn't done the work. It is no post facto judgment on those complaints, some of which we vociferously shared, to say that this descent of the Furies was a terrific political ordeal and that it was withstood and eventually mastered by Mr. Kennedy.

The Georgetown University speech last Jan. 28 was a turning point, a moment when Sen. Kennedy was seen to be more articulate, that is, more certain of who he was personally and politically, more clearly in charge of his ideas, his identity and his purpose. He espoused an array of views then that were traditional bedrock liberal, and this represented a decision: to make his political fate contingent on loyalty to a collection of constituencies he wanted to speak for. The smart money at the time had it that this was a dumb, if faithful, thing to do, that Sen. Kennedy must "move right" to move ahead. But he wouldn't

To some extent that fidelity did help ensure his final defeat. Yes, of course, there was much else at work there, including some not very lovely campaigning on his opponent's part and some very large blunders and deficiencies on his own. But Mr. Kennedy over the past 10 months has come alive politically and come into his own. He became a more plausible, credible candidate. And what now seems to be his newer inclination to refine and enlarge the somewhat tired, ritualistic concepts of liberalism with which the campaign began and to identify himself with the revised, enlarged understanding, even as he helps to create it, bodes well for the future of Sen. Kennedy. It also severely limits the meaning of the word "defeat" in connection with his campaign.