Elizabeth Drew's campaign reports for The New Yorker attest to the reality of the election race, to its being something more than a spectator sport, as neither the post mortems nor most of the press reports do. It isn't just that she writes long pieces periodically--to record impressions rather than to call the shots; nor that her impressions are meticulously (some would say dauntingly) detailed, that she draws out the candidates at length--at more length, sometimes, than one has patience for in the aftermath. (Interviewing Reagan, however, was ""like grappling with a wet piece of soap."" On the other hand, Drew's late afternoon talk with the Andersons about his impending ""unconventional"" candidacy exactly pinions a decisive moment.) Neither is it the case that she is less interested in the practice of politics than the analysts or the correspondents: the appended memorandums that she solicited from Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin and Carter pollster Patrick Cadell are dopesters' treasure maps--on the minute or the monumental. (Wirthlin: ""The Governor definitely is an 'afternoon' person""; Cadell: ""IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO LOOK PRESIDENTIAL AND CHASE REAGAN."") And Drew's own headquarters reports--especially on the Carter camp's juggling with the presidency--are precise and acute. (She probably wouldn't dissent from the Germond-Witkover thesis, in Blue Smoke and Mirrors, that the media experts and such didn't decide the election; but in war-wary New Hampshire, she shows, Cadell instantly upped Carter's sagging ratings by--in the words of an aide--""pulling us off the hawk trail."") What sets her apart, then, is an avid interest in persons, practical politics, and revealing particulars . . . irrespective of the outcome. Her reports don't date, because they never were timely. Politically, no one is deader today than Ted Kennedy. And from Drew's observations in the course of his campaign, one never has the sense that he would win. But to return with her to Kennedy barnstorming for a week in Iowa--at first self-consciously restrained, ""programmed and reprogrammed,"" then infectiously letting loose--is to rekindle all that makes politics uncertain and electric. When she draws conclusions--on the competences of Carter and Reagan, their respective characters, why one lost and the other won--she's simply more discriminating than most. At taking in the scene, the words and meanings, she's unsurpassed.