The barricade was yanked aside, the arm gestured in a wide arc and the man bellowed, "OKAY! MOVE 'EM THROUGH!"

It could have been John Wayne in the great "Red River" cattle drive. It could have been, but it wasn't. It was a harried political operative moving people. Some 4,300 of them. Soggy in the rain, jammed and pushed and shoved and confused -- participating in one of the strangest events of modern American politics.

They are residents of Dade County -- the largest of Florida's counties -- and their ballots will be decisive to crown the winner in the President Carter versus Sen. Edward M. Kennedy Florida caucuses. Although they voted Saturday, the official outcome will not be certain until later this week; at the end of the day Carter was ahead by only 55 votes in an amateur tallying system at the site.

Whether the sound and fury of all this hoopla to send delegates to a November convention to cast a non-binding straw vote for president signifies anything will also be analyzed and debated for days.

But importance aside, Saturday at the Dade County polling place was a scene unto itself, in a day of statewide voting billed as the first test of strength between the president and his expected challenger.

Black university students cheering as if at a pep rally, burly machinists hawking the labor slate, elderly Jews from the condos, Hispanics greeting friends, Kennedy and Carter volunteers battling to get their buses unloaded and their supporters on line. . .

On line is where English meets Spanish. One potbellied man holding the labor slate mumbles, "If this is'nt the biggest f--- up I've ever seen." The dark-haired woman in front of him sighs and says, "Si. Si."

10 a.m.. Clara Levine is one of 14 senior citizens huddled on the near-empty bus leaving South Miami Beach's Jewish Center. Rain is fast eroding Kennedy's major source of strength -- the elderly Jewish vote.

Early optimistic predictions of 5,000 Kennedy voters dwindled to a reality of some 2,000. Besides, it is the Sabath. "I don't normally vote on Saturday, but I'm doing my neighbor a fayor and so I am going and I don't like Carter," says Levine. "I"m a Democrat all my life. We don't need a southerner. Billy Carter I don't like and the mother I don't like."

Her friend, Fredericka Schiseil, a retired school teacher, says "I'm pushing Kennedy although I'm not saying either one is an angel in disguise."

Levine and Schiseil are with a cluster of Brooklynites who had all retired in Florida. Levine, 78, listens intently as Abe, formerly a union organizer, instructs them on the confusing ballot. "Mark not less than 141, not more than 188. More -- and it will be thrown out." Everyone is losing patience with everyone else on the bus. They all had the red Kennedy slate. They would have to match 188 names with corresponding numbers and names on the official ballot of 879. It would take no less than 10 minutes to mark the ballot. "See, our first man is No. 2. Next is No. 5 and next is No. 18. Skip all the numbers in between," said Schiseil in exasperation. "those are all Carter men. We only go to our men."

On and on the bifocals scan the ballot. For openers, there is a total of six people with the last name of Abrams on the ballot. Two are for Kennedy, two for Carter and two belong to nobody.

In the lull, Levine reminisces. "I lived in a beautiful neighborhood 37 years ago. The heart of Flatbush. Now you can't live there. Brooklyn College was the best. Now they take in anybody. Florida? My place, where I live, it's very clannish. Not that I'm a snob, but I like my type -- congenial, intelligent.

"I came from Austria -- after the First World War." Lenvine is one of a dying breed of old line Jewish liberals who escaped the pogroms and a persecution of Europe. "My husband was a white-collar man from Europe. He went to the lecture at Hillel by a very famous man and in a minute he died, of a heart attack."

He was only 42. That was in 1944, the same year her only son died in the war. "Oh, what a boy. A student of the Torah and people came to hear him speak -- he was better than Eleanor Roosevelt.

"So that's the story of my life, darling."

A few moments later Levine and her busload of friends are caught up in the swirl of the mob outside the Joseph Caleb auditorium, which seats only 1,200. Long lines snake around all entrances. Young volunteers and older political organizers shove their troops in, hold up umbrellas, hand out flat Cokes and dry cake.

One man, Ivy League in his rumpled, expensive gray suit and striped shirt, pushes back a stanchion to try to ease the crush., "Okay. Let's go!" she shouts, sweat mixing with rain drops. "Can you believe this? Its the goddamnedest mess. The Carter people planned it that way."

His name is Harold Ickes. "A good old Washington name," he says smugly, this lawyer from New York, the son of Harold L. Ickes, FDR's Secretary of the Interior. He, like many others, is ready to move again, to do anything, including moving barricades and barking at crowds, to get a Kennedy elected.

It takes three hours before Clara Levine and her crowd can move into the auditorium, cast their ballots, march up on stage, drop them in the ballot box and file outside. There they wait several minutes longer, breathing in bus-fumed air while groups search endlessly for friends who have gotten lost.

"I'm Proud to be Union." The huge signs of the surprisingly well-organized labor delegation greet everyone at the entrance of the auditorium. They are uncommitted, they say, although several names on their slate overlap with Carter delegates. The Iron Workers, Local 272, all with brand new black and white T-shirts, stand together; good old boys with long, faded blond hair and beards and bulging biceps and friendly smiles.

"You see this building? It wouldn't be here without us." They want to get to the November convention in large enough numbers to push a labor plank. Buddy Phillips, business agent for the Iron Workers says he is worried that "Ted Kennedy will split the party."

On line, carpenter Bill Masters is talking. "My brother worked Chrysler and he was fixin' to get laid off, so he contacted Toyota in Japan. Hell, he'd even go there -- but they won't hire Americans. And a friend of mine sold his big farm in Nebraska and the new owners, they was from Saudi Arabia. So my friend says he'll get him some oil wells in Saudi Arabia but Americans can't own oil wells in Saudi Arabia -- but they can buy farms here. It's time to vote for ourselves. For all working people.I'm for who will give us the best break."

Inside the auditorium, people cluster over their ballots. It is a scene that would have pleased Chicago's Mayor Daley. Kennedy and Carter "helpers" float through the aisles in large numbers. A voice shouts from the loudspeaker. "If you have made a mistake, just mark NO beside it!" The helpers were only supposed to guide people. But in the mob scene by noon, volunteers for both sides sit in the aisles, filling out the ballots for the voters -- who watch.

National and international reporters are roped off behind the ballot boxes, conducting their own tally. French and German and English cameramen all shout instructions as little old ladies with heavy Yiddish accents wander by, lost, asking anyone to lead them to their buses.

By mid afternoon both sides were getting testy with one another. Carter forces had taken over a smaller room as a holding spot for their voters. "It's a goddamn Carter headquarters -- right at the polling place," fumed a Kennedy operative.

Carter aides officiously halted people bearing Kennedy buttons. "This is for Carter people only."

Outside, two groups of young black volunteers bused in from local high schools and colleges squared off in good natured, but heated cheerleading cat calls. "Who are you rooting for? Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy!" shouted one group. The other group answered back that Kennedy was a "Chump, chump, chump" and "We're for Jimmy C!" Boogieing and wearing their Carter signs on their behinds, they squealed when a TV reporter told them to keep it up until he could get back with a cameraman.

A large Carter organizer who looked like comedian Dick Gregory before the weight loss yelled a discordant "Kennedy's a killer," over and over.

Despite all the chaos and studied orchestration of the day, there emerged something rather compelling and exciting in that auditorium. One Miamian watched proudly. "This is the first time I've seen anything like this. This is considered a slumber area," he said of the auditorium in the heart of the Miami's black section. "People withdraw here. I've never seen such a cross section -- labor and blacks and Cubans and the old people."

There was even the inevitable exhibityionist that always follows national politics. Joel Jeffer marched around with his "Jerry Brown 4 pres" sign, dressed in cutoff jeans, sandals -- and a gold star painted from his eyes to his chin. An out-of-work, recent graduate of the University of Chicago, Jeffer said, "Oh I thought I'd just dress up in my best clothes." c

On stage, talking with national reporters was former governor Reuben Askew, a loyal Carter supporter. Saturday's statewide vote amounted to less than 2 percent of the registered Florida Democrats but Askew argued that the figure was not meaningless. It was a great representative mix, he said. "The last time they turned out like this was for something like a Proposition 13 here last month. Of course Florida is one of Carter's better states, but this turnout should lay to rest the idea he is not a good candidate."

Talking to people waiting to cast ballots, no clear-cut preference truly emerged. People were vague on issues; or what the two men stood for. Carter was supported as a good man who is doing his best and should be given a chance. For all his 17 years in the Senate, Kennedy's stands were unknown to many. Those against him most often brought up Chappaquidick, and cheating at Harvard, as moral character flaws.

Only the elderly spoke strongly on issues. They saw Kennedy as their champion because of his national health insurance proposals. One man said, "Carter would cut out the $225 burial grant to survivors of a deceased spouse." From his near-80-year-old outlook on life, that was important. "Besides, he cuts all the people programs -- from farmers to CETA."

Meanwhile, by 4 p.m., back at the Omni Hotel Kennedy headquarters, people stared at early results on partially filled in charts.

It looked like Carter would take the delegate slates -- especially with Dade County expected to finally go to him. But the popularity vote looked close.

Already the White House was claiming victory. It was time for the Kennedy people to claim something.

Gerald Lewis, the state comptroller and only major Florida Democratic official allied with Kennedy, told a cluster of reporters that the most important point of the day was the large popular outpouring for Kennedy. "The Carter people can rationalize it any way they want," he said by way of dismissal, then proceeded to rationalize it any way He wanted to.

"'they did everything to us. The rules were so difficult, to favor an incumbent. One polling place for a county (Dade) roughly the size of New Hampshire! We wanted them to stay open until 5 p.m. but they said no. Had to close at 3 p.m. They knew that labor people who would vote for Kennedy would get off work at 4 p.m.

"And then they schedule it on a Jewish holiday and they changed polling places at the last minute in some counties. They brought everything to Florida but the White House. I've been in public life since 1966 and I have never seen anything so outrageous! In the face of all those odds, to be neck-and-neck with an incumbent president when you don't even have a candidate. . ."

Ah yes, the first salvo of 1980, the first test of some sort of Carter versus Kennedy had begun. . .