What I keep remembering is the exit poll. A month ago, as I left the voting booth, someone from a TV station handed me a short questionnaire.

That second "ballot" had a list of questions about Ted Kennedy. Had I voted for him? Did I think he was a good senator? Did I want him to run for president?

Yes, I answered, I'd voted for him. Yes, I rated him pretty high as a senator. But no, in my gut, I didn't want him to run for president.

That day I questioned some other friends and neighbors in my precinct. Most of them had voted for the man and, yet, when you got down to it, they hoped he wouldn't run for president.

Well, I thought about that when Ted Kennedy stood up in a Senate chamber Wednesday and said he wasn't going to run in 1984. The one word that seemed to come automatically from friends who heard or read that announcement, the most spontaneous feeling I picked up all day, was "relief."

These were not Mondale people, nor Glenn people nor Republicans. These were Massachusetts people and, to some degree, Kennedy people. And yet they were "relieved." Just like his kids.

A good deal has been said about Kennedy's decision to drop out for the sake of his children. Some people, cynical about everything but their own cynicism, doubt that rationale. I don't. Anyone who has seen Ted Kennedy with his kids, any kids, has seen him at his most human. Fathering may be the thing he does the best and talks about the worst.

But nobody has said why his kids want Ted out. These aren't small kids who want their daddy home every night. Two are in college, one in a boarding school outside Boston. I'm sure they want and need time with him. But it's more complex than that. If Ted Kennedy was thinking of his sons and daughter, they were thinking of him. If he did it for them, they did it for him.

My bet is that his kids just want to protect their father. They don't want him vulnerable to some nut out there with a gun, a nut who belongs to a culture in which a rock group is named The Dead Kennedys. They don't want him vulnerable to another round of interrogations about his "character" and his private life. They may not even want to see him, with his back brace and his exhaustion, running, running, running. They surely don't want him to lose again.

I catch a similar feeling among more distant Kennedy supporters. In this, his home state, we have our own collection of Kennedy lovers and Kennedy haters, but there is a streak I can only label "protective."

You can walk into a thousand homes in Boston and find a picture of John F. Kennedy in the living room. We've been through 25 years of Kennedy dramas. We know that there's some heat that a Kennedy brings to a campaign.

Some believe that this is the wrong time for such a hot candidate for president. Others feel he's accumulated too many qualms on his resume. But many, reluctant to open another act, simply believe that Kennedy is best, even happiest, in his supporting role.

People who live in Kennedy country assume that Ted has run for the presidency against shadows. Ask someone from Massachusetts if Teddy would make a good president and subconsciously they match him -- but not against Ronald Reagan. They match him against Jack and Bobby. In some ways, they suspect he runs his own campaigns against Bobby and Jack, for Joe's approval. Isn't there a time to get off the hook?

During that 1980 botch of a primary, I wrote that Kennedy was campaigning as if he didn't really want it. His candidacy didn't look like a choice but rather an acceptance of expectations, even destiny.

The only time he sounded comfortable in his own skin, his own voice, was when he began to lose. Once again, on Wednesday, Ted Kennedy was best -- sure, articulate, easy--as he bowed out of the running.

The political types are looking for secret reasons for Kennedy's decision. They are talking about polls and Chappaquiddick and 1988. But maybe the secret is that Ted Kennedy really doesn't want to run for the presidency. Maybe the secret is that he feels what a lot of us in his home state feel, what his kids feel. Maybe this morning he feels relieved.