Cape Cod

Down in Washington, the politicians' rule of thumb holds that Ted Kennedy's political ambitions at any given time can be gauged by his waistline. When he's not campaigning, the rule says, Kennedy lets himself go to flab; but when he's running for something, he thins for battle.

So much for rules of thumb.

As he hosted two sprawling lawn parties at his family's elegant seaside settlement here this weekend, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was in fullest form, one might say, with the results of an epicurean summer clearly evident on his husky frame.

But he was also clearly running for something--for reelection to the Senate next year and for president in 1984. That was the point of the weekend of political partying at the Kennedy compound.

On Saturday, reviving a tradition he has followed every year or so since he entered the Senate in 1963, he hosted about 200 Massachusetts reporters, the people who will cover the Senate race here next year.

But this year, for the first time, invitations to the media party also went to a number of national reporters, the people who will cover the next presidential campaign.

The national press corps, uncertain about the news value of the outing but as eager as anyone to spend a weekend on Cape Cod at their employers' expense, came in droves.

The New York Times sent three reporters, as did Time and Newsweek magazines. Other journals represented included The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit News and the London Observer.

The ground rules stipulated that there were to be no television cameras, which meant no story for the networks. But this did not prevent the TV news operations from responding to the event with their usual abandon.

CBS and NBC both sent half a dozen people to cover the non-story. First prize in the media extravagance sweepstakes, though, went to ABC, which dispatched a chartered jet and two long, black limousines to ferry anchorman Frank Reynolds and assorted other personnel to the Saturday afternoon affair.

Yesterday, an even larger crowd gathered, this one made up of veteran Kennedy campaign workers. Again, the party-goers were mostly from Massachusetts, but again the guest list was national in scope.

The Kennedy workers said that they had largely overcome their fears of a few months ago that next year's Senate campaign might be unusually difficult for their man. Since the Massachusetts Republicans do not seem to have found a formidable candidate, Kennedy is now a strong favorite to win again.

The politicians said they now believe that national right-wing campaigns aimed at Kennedy were designed more to raise money for the conservative groups than to make a difference in Massachusetts.

At neither party were the guests offered anything so crass as speeches or outright politicking. The means of persuasion this weekend were more indirect.

The politicians and the pundits enjoyed the camaraderie of their jolly, gracious host, who shook hands, slapped backs and posed for pictures by the hour. And they had the chance to experience briefly the enormously comfortable way of life that enormous wealth can command.

The party-goers played volleyball and, of course, touch football, on lush green lawns overlooking the soft blue sea. They embarked on handsome sailboats crewed by Ethel Kennedy and several younger members of the clan.

The guests lined up to tour the family homes. The most popular tour was through the home of the late John F. Kennedy, the very citadel of the Kennedy mystique. Neighbors serving as tour guides pointed out copies of the late president's books and other artifacts ("This is a painting Jackie did for Jack in 1960 . . . .") in tones suited for the guides at St. Peter's Basilica.

Alongside the splendor were reminders of the family's tragedy as well. The home of the senator's 91-year-old mother, Rose, was filled with pictures of the three sons she lost. In Ted Kennedy's home on Squaw Island, there was a gallery of happy family photos featuring Ted Kennedy's estranged wife, Joan.

And across the sea, somewhere beyond the horizon was the island where Ted Kennedy may have lost his chance to be president on a summer night 12 years ago.

But the weekend was no time for such unpleasant memories. Kennedy, in a purple polo shirt and non-designer jeans, was all quips and smiles.

For everyone he had a wink and a joke about looking ahead to future campaigns.

The senator also paraded the grounds with his mother, a frail but spirited sprite in a blue pantsuit and a big straw hat.

"How old am I? 91 or 92," she joked. "But I'll be out campaigning for you, dear."

At one point, the senator asked his mother if she wasn't getting tired of shaking hands and lining up for pictures. "It's all right, it's all right," she replied. "We have always lived with a crowd."