The candidate's aide, offering a nugget of small talk, tells him that the fireman about to give him a tour of the Manchester, N.H., fire station is also president of a mountain climbing club. The candidate smiles, coffs his 10-gallon cowboy hat, and starts to chitchat. He used to get more exercise himself, the candidate confides, but you know how political life takes up your time. . . .

A local television reporter interviews the candidate about his chances in the Feb. 26 Democratic primary. Putting down his pipe, he says they are excellent, that he will probably come in second after Carter. What about these private security guards he travels with, the reporter asks -- why armed guards?

Well, he explains without a flicker of emotion, his thumb hooked casually into the vest pocket of his suit, terrorists have targeted him for assassination. His enemies are freaked out by his candidacy, he says, and President Carter is being petty and immoral in denying him Secret Service protection.

Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., who says most of his opponents are "loonies" and "cuckoo," is running for president.

The New Hampshire campaign headquarters of Citizens for LaRouche looks like any other campaign headquarters -- the volunteers sitting at cluttered tables working the telephones, the charts and maps of New Hampshire, the bathroom with the burned-out light bulb that everyone is too busy to replace. Clean-cut workers come and go, some carrying boxes of campaign literature that get stored on the floor.

Campaign literature such as one bound brochure entitled, "The American Friends Service Committee: Sodomy and Terrorism." Or, "LaRouche Policy Statement" opposing repeal of the Davis Bacon Act, in which Republican George Bush is described thus:

"George Bush, a member of a weird Yale blue-blood 'death and resurrection' cult, 'Skull and Bones' . . ."

Lyndon LaRouche, Democrat for president, has qualified for $294,000 in federal matching funds so far, and could qualify for the maximum of over $7 million more. Already he has purchased two half-hours of network television time -- at a cost of about $204,000 -- seen by between 7 million and 25 million people, according to his staff estimates. In New Hampshire he has offices in eight cities (front-runner Carter has 11), and enough billboards and commercials to make him appear to rival his competitors.

His public messages emphasize his self-professed prominence as an "influential economist," his proposal for a gold-based monetary system, his opposition to over-regulation and to such "evils" as HEW, his paramount belief in technology, in nuclear energy, and a future of prosperity rather than austerity, and his vehement opposition to drugs and environmentalists.

In short, he often sounds rather like the conservative Democrat he says he is.

But the LaRouche campaign may turn out to be one of the more bizarre footnotes in current American politics. It is politics reflected in the funhouse mirror, throwing back at us an image that is at once familiar and contorted.

"Heads of state are watching the New Hampshire elections, and saying that my candidacy is the only hope for the United States," says Lyndon LaRouche, once known as Lyn Marcus, former Marxist, former "management consultant" for firms he won't name, former candidate on the obscure U.S. Labor Party ticket "and the only hope for the world."

This is a campaign with a script by Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Altman in which many of the parts are played by Peter Lorre.It is a campaign in which the candidate does not merely disagree with his opponents but calls, some of them perverts and terrorists, travels with armed bodyguards trained at a private military training camp, and regularly predicts attempts on his life -- the most recent being an assassination plot by the mayor of tiny Keene, N.H., and the governor of the state.

"It's living proof that in a free country any idiot can run for president," responded Keene Mayor Richard P. Peloquin.

But LaRouche is different from the usual fringe candidates who surface during an election. For one thing, he commands a cadre of maybe 2,000 followers whose intense devotion has been described by ex-colleagues and observers as cult-like.

Secondly, they have managed to raise the requisite $5,000 in 20 states in amounts of no more than $250 per person to qualify for federal matching funds. He is the only fringe candidate to have done so.

"This is the most bizarre thing I've ever seen," says Patricia McMahon, executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. She says that some "LaRouchies," as they have been dubbed, harass people on the street to buy their literature and have besieged her and other party officials with petty phone calls, a complaint echoed by others who have had dealings with LaRouche's devotees over the years.

Campaign spokesmen deny charges of harassment and complain on their own of "dirty tricks" perpetrated by workers in the other campaigns. LaRouche charged that the state Democratic Party chairman tried to prevent him from being declared a "bona fide Democrat," on orders from President Carter.

"At first I could buy what they said because they were things any good businessman would agree with," says Ralph Johnson, a conservative Republican in Keene who signed a statement endorsing LaRouche that the campaign is distributing. "But the more I knew of him the less enthused I was. I disassociated myself from the campaign several weeks ago. The language he used just grated on me -- calling people swine and bums. The man doesn't have any class.And they seemed to be more interested in getting Secret Service protection than in running a campaign. They kept asking me if I'd received any threats!"

The flyer the campaign distributes identifies Johnson as a delegate to the New Hampshire State Labor Convention, a member of the national advisory board of (Philip) Crane for President, and a former member of the New Hampshire American Party. Johnson said he is none of those things. Quick and Confusing

LaRouche's press secretary, Laura Cohen, is on the telephone. "Look," she says icily, "we know you wrote your story before you even talked to us. We have made a record of everything you have said while you've been here. We'll decide what to do with it after your story appears."

"The security guards can decide to terminate the interview at any time," warned campaign aide Scott Thompson. The interview was scheduled for early evening at a rambling modern house LaRouche rented from a Manchester buuilder "who likes to go South for the winter," (LaRouche himself has recently moved from New York City to a suburb of Detroit because a newspaper printed his address and he no longer felt safe in the Bronx.)

A tall, balding man with a strong New England accent, LaRouche speaks quickly but in complicated sentences that can leave a listener almost immobilized with confusion.

During this interview, attended by his wife, press secretary Laura Cohen and a bodyguard, LaRouche seemed relaxed, talking for several hours without the interview being "terminated" by anyone. One Exchange:

Q: Mr. LaRouche, on what basis do you say you're one of the leading economists in the world?

A: Oh, there's no question about it . . . I am the leading economist of the century.

Q: Do you realize that to the average person that might sound a bit arrogant?

A: So what, it's true. People who lie out of humility are just as bad as those who lie out of braggadocio. It's a practical point: I am the world's leading economist and in Europe, I'm considered the intellectual author of the European Monetary Fund.

For the record, here is what LaRouche said was his key achievement:

The characteristic problem in economics is, how do you determine in a deterministic way what the rate of growth would be as a result of a certain rate of increase in technology, and how do you define technology and how do you define growth in those terms. That one I solved back in about '52. The Nasty Duckling

LaRouche was born Sept. 8, 1922, in Rochester, N.H., according to his book, "The Power of Reason; A Kind of Autobiography." (The book was printed, as are all his works and those of the U.S. Labor Party, by the New Benjamin Franklin Publlishing House, which happens to have the same address as his presidential campaign office.)

His father was a "road man" for the United Shoe Machinery Corp.; his mother was a fundamentalist Quaker.

His "troubles began with the first grade." As he tells it, the Quaker injunction against fighting, the lack of intellectual stimulation in Rochester, and the unfairness of his teachers were the primary reasons.

But, he wrote, "I was by no means helpless before a sea of oppression."

His father was given to "explosions of rage," and relations between LaRouche's parents were not peaceful.

The family moved to Lynn, Mass., when LaRouche was 10, and there he spent a "bitterly boring and gray" adolescence. He describes himself as an "outcast," once saying that he was not "an ugly duckling, but a nasty duckling."

LaRouche wrote that he had almost no friends in high school, no social life, a bitter and unhappy family life.Over his Quaker family's objections, he joined the army near the end of World War II.

Later he attended Northeastern University, "resigning" after finding it inadequate to his superior mind. In other words, he has no college degree. i

"I walked out in disgust," he explains. "I would never let anybody who wanted to be an economist study economics at a university."

In 1948 he joined the Socialist Workers Party, which he now says was filled with "mediocre minds." But, "one had to start somewhere." At some point he took the name Lyn Marcus, which he now says was a pen name derived from his nickname, "Marco Polo." He was known as Marcus until fairly recently.

During the following two decades, he was a "management consultant" and an active Marxist and Trotskyite in New York City. He says the main reason he was a member of the Socialist Workers Party is that it was one of the few groups objecting to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist vendetta.

He was married once before his current wife, he said, to a woman named Janice with whom he had a son. However, former members say he lived for years with another woman, who went by the name Carol LaRouche, who was active in organizing the party with him.

He headed one of numerous leftist splinter groups within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He and his few followers formed what became the National Caucus of Labor Committees and its political arm, the U.S. Labor Party. LaRouche ran for president in 1976 on the Labor Party ticket.

Their outlook is described by them in the LaRouchian term: Neoplatonic. Detractors say that their views are cult-like, anti-Semitic, and paranoid. The party faithful vehemently deny these charges.

Aside from discovering that his brain was superior to Karl Marx's, LaRouche discovered something else in the years before he decided only he could save the United States from Disaster:

"Making men in my own image was the conscious articulation of my central purpose from approximately 1946," he wrote. The LaRouchian Creed

Here are some of the things LaRouche and his associates believe, according to him or their literature:

Britain is waging a drug war against the United States to destroy us, aided by "Italian surname organized crime syndicates," "Jewish name" financial figures and Zionists, and Chinese intelligence agents.

Jews founded the Ku Klux Klan.

The Temperance Movement was founded as a violent cult and those members of the Women's Christian Temmperance Union who attacked saloons (something the WCTU says is a myth) were really "ax-wielding lesbians."

The United States should establish "universal military training" that would turn the "entire citizenry" into an army from which only those with physical or mental disabilities would be exempt.

Economist Milton Friedman is a fascist.

Environmentalists, "zero-growthers," and "small is beautiful types" are really trying to commit genocide on the human race.

Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and geometry are the main things children should be taught in school.

The Rockefeller family and their stooges, the CIA, the FBI, the Kennedy family, William F. Buckley Jr., Marcus Raskin, and, basically, a lot of others who aren't members of the NCLC, are responsible for everything in the world that is bad.

Adodlf Hitler worked as a correspondent for The New York Times.

The Abscam scandal is really an FBI plot to undermine the Democratic Party machine in order to control it. Food & Foreign Affairs

Helga Zepp-LaRouche, 31, has been campaigning full-time for her husband. She is a citizen of West Germany and said she has not thought yet about whether she would become an American citizen if her husband is elected president. She travels to the college classrooms, forums and senior citizen centers that make up the daily grist of campaigning.

Dressed on one occasion in a red plaid skirt and a red sweater, she looked rather like an aging coed, earnestly promoting her husband's economic theories and promises of a prosperous future. Like other LaRouche supporters, she answers questions with an edge of condescension, as though there can be no other response.

In an interview (monitored by three aides and a bodyguard) she said she worked for three years as a newspaper reporter in Germany, and in 1971 was the first Western journalist to visit the People's Republic of China, where she spent three months.

There she saw first hand the "absurdity" of thinking that China could be a "viable ally."

She met LaRouche after being introduced to his economic theories at the Free University in Berlin, she said. She decided to visit the United States in 1973 to pursue these ideas further, met him, and eventually married him two years ago. She is working on a dissertation on Nicolas of Cusa.

She is also a student and translator of the poet Friedrich Schiller, whom she admires for "his notion of the beautiful soul."

"Kant says that if there is a conflict between duty and freedom, people have to choose duty," she said. "Schiller says that is not for us -- duty is for the Knights. For us the necessity is love, beauty and passion."

Her influence in the White House would be primarily in foreign affairs, she said, in which she would help her husband "to improve." She would also promote good music and education, and good wines.

One of her main projects as first lady would be the development of the culinary arts. There would be "a lot of good cooking" in the White House, done by "the best cooks in the world."

"The next day we would give a press briefing and would have the cook publish to the press the recipes, so the American housewife could share what is going on at the White House in these banquets."

Zepp-LaRouche is speaking to an audience of five students and eight campaign workers at a community college in Concord, N.H. After the speech, a reporter moves to interview one of the students. Press aide Laura Cohen is right by her side.

"I'd like to interview this student and then I'll join you," the reporter says.

"Go ahead," says Cohen, not moving.

"I'd like to interview the student privately," the reporter says.

"I'd like to stay," says Cohen. "I always do."

"Well, I'd rather you didn't," says the reporter, ushering the confused student to another part of the classroom.

The interview proceeds. The student's name is Sandy, she's 19, and a nursing student. She wants to hear every presidential candidate she can, although she's leaning toward Ronald Reagan. As she talks, both she and the reporter notice that the woman who had been greeting people at the door is standing behind the reporter.

Sandy says she didn't agree with much of what Zepp-LaRouche said, but had expected more specifics, as she had from John Anderson the week before.

The interview is concluded a few seconds later. The reporter collects her gear and rejoins Cohen. As they walk down the school hallway, Cohen says, "That was Helga's speech for student audiences. Usually she's more specific . . ." Devotion and Lawsuits

Two major questions about LaRouche and his followers baffle longtime observers: how did he get from being a Marxist to a "conservative Democrat," and where does their money come from?

"There is no one as odd as LaRouche," said history professor David DeLeon, author of "The American as Anarchist," and a student of fringe political groups. "There is no parallel. You can't talk about it rationally."

Neither the left nor the right of the mainstream political spectrum wishes to claim them. Many "LaRouchies" display many of the characteristic features of a cult -- an almost total dedication to the ideas of one man even when they are not logical, a belief that everyone else is out to get them; a lifestyle that isolates them from association with non-LaRouchies, and an intense, humorless devotion to their cause.

They vehemently deny the label of cult, and hurl it back at their most regular targets ("Zionist cult," "environmentalist cult," etc.). They also deny being anti-Semitic, and have filed a suit against the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith for accusing LaRouche and other NCLC members of making anti-Semitic statements in their publications since 1978.

The circumlocutions of LaRouche's intellectual theories defy description. "For a long time I thought I was just stupid that I didn't get what he was saying," said Wes McCune, who studies right-wing groups. "Then I realized -- it wasn't me."

"People hesitate to comment on him because at one time or another he's been at every point on the political spectrum, from Rosa Luxemburg to Alexander Hamilton," said DeLeon.

"Theh psychological motivation of the U.S. Labor Party is endlessly fascinating to me," said William Rusher, publisher of the conservative National Review. "Nobody seems to know really what they are. It really boils down to a psychological history of Lyndon LaRouche. Maybe he's just a free-lance megalomaniac."

(National Review published an article by a U.S. Labor Party defector, Gregory Rose, for which it is being sued by the ultra-right-wing Liberty Lobby over charges that it funneled money from the right wing into Labor Party coffers. National Review is countersuing.)

Historically, the group began as a "tendency" in the SDS in 1968. Compared to other SDS factions, it was studious, Marxist-Trotskyite rathehr than Maoist, and then, as now, frowned on drug use, promiscuity and rock 'n' roll.

When SDS dissolved in 1969, it became a separate group called the National Caucus of Labor Committees, and for several years held fairly closely to Marxist ideology. The U.S. Labor Party was formed in 1972 and ran candidates in municipal elections in several cities.

According to former members, the turning point came in 1974, when LaRouche announced that a British member had been brainwashed, and party members were told to alert the national media to this "threat." As the years passed, assassination threats against LaRouche became a regular alert chronicled in the party organ, New Solidarity.

"Security" became more important and members of the party were trained in self-defense and "anti-terrorist techniques" at their own farm and later at a private camp in Georgia operated by international arms manufacturer Mitchel L. Werbell III.

In 1974 they launched "Operation Mop-Up," a retaliatory move against the Communist Party. For about a month Caucus members attended CP meetings, provoking both physical and verbal fights.

Later they harassed prominent liberals like Marcus Raskin of the Institute for Policy Studies and linguist Noam Chomsky, calling them "scum" and "fascist," among other things.

"Although the Labor Party has developed a new configuration of tactical alliances since January 1974," said an unsigned article in the Oct. 1, 1979, edition of New Solidarity, "it is nonsense to argue that the party's outlook or method have changed over the period of its existence. Developed to greater richness, yes; changed in any essential feature, no."

The source of the operation's estimated $3-million budget is not completely clear. There are a variety of sources:

Airport sales of publications, including the Executive Intelligence Report, which costs $10 a copy.

Donations from members and wealthy supporters. The New York Times, quoting former members, reported last October that at least five members have given more than $100,000 of their own money to the organization.

One ex-member told Business Week that the group hoped to get $1 million from an Iraqi group. LaRouche was quoted as saying, "We tried to get money from the Arabs but we never did."

Again quoting former members and pending lawsuits, The New York Times reported that three profitable businesses in New York that are dominated by LaRouche supporters funnel money to the political operations. This was denied by corporate officers for the businesses.

Campaign treasurer Felice Gelman said The New York Times stories were "total fabrications and lies." She said that neither LaRouche nor the U.S. Labor Party has filed a libel suit against The Times yet, as they announced in October they would do, because "The New York Times has an almost unlimited budget for litigation. It is one of the most difficult organizations to litigate because of this, so we won't file until we feel it is absolutely locked up. . . . truth and libel law bear very little relation to each other."

LaRouche charged The Times stories were linked to "organized crime."

At any rate, LaRouche is now seeking the Democratic nomination for president, saying that he represents the mainstream conservative Democrat who is the heart of the party. His people predict he will get about 15 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, based on their polls, despite the dirty tricks, assassination threats and media distortions they allege.

"It's a very unhappy state of affairs," said New Hampshire Democratic National Committeeman J. Willcox Brown. "If people don't know who they are -- I mean who could be pro-drug, pro-red tape, or for more regulation? I think they're laying the base for times that are so disrupted that an anguished populace would turn to the type of leadership found in Italy and Germany after World War I." The Fireman's Verdict

Two firemen in the Manchester firehouse, obviously accustomed to the visits of politicians, watch LaRouche tour with polite indifference. The candidate commiserates with them on the "water problem" in town, promising, "we'll have to do something about that." One of the firemen is a Democrat for Reagan, the other is a Democrat who hasn't made up his mind yet. He has never heard of LaRouche.

"But I'd never heard of Jimmy Carter four years ago, either," he says.

"Why don't you write that down," says Laura Cohen.