"There's a show-must-go-on mentality that takes over," says a campaigning daughter. "They called me from headquarters and said I'd have to substitute because my mother had had a heart attack or something. I said, 'Sure, how do I get there and how many talks do I give?' And then it hit me -- what they'd said. 'What do you mean,' I screamed, 'my mother's had a heart attack? When? Where is she? But the first reaction was the campaign one. It's unreal."

It is one of those Washington dinner parties. The temperature of the discussion around the table is rising. There is a cacophony of voices as each diner seeks to be heard. Most of the guests are from the media and they are critical of the campaigning families of presidential candidates. I am a lone voice trying to defend them.

The opposing stances vary. There is the feminist opinion that the wives are being used. There is the anti-wife attitude -- what qualifies her? And who elected her? There is the no-holds-barred attitude: If they're going to be out there, they're going to be asked the questions. The public's right to know is invoked.

I demur. Every political family isn't a mini-Watergate. It's hard to see what the public could gain from the opinions of a 12-year-old girl, or what could be learned about Chappaquiddick from quizzing a 16-year-old nephew. The cacophony breaks out again. I fall back on the old analogy . . . the "mom and pop" store, the family farm.

"But the difference is that the store and the farm belonged to the family; the White House doesn't," says the woman journalist triumphantly and with some justice.

I subside. And yet I still feel that, symbolically, I am right. In a way the American voter does elect the family. And, sensings that, taking it for granted, generations of political families have met the voter in one way or another.

Campaigning families seem to be rediscovered every four years -- and then, only tardily by the national press. This year, for example, it is probably news to Washingtonians that Joy Baker and her daughter, Cissie, have maintained heavy campaign schedules in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states; that Joan Mondale has been on the road in support of the adminstration almost as much as the vice president; that Barbara Bush has been traveling about the nation just as long as her husband, as have their five sons and two daughters-in-law; that since the Iowa caucuses, Joan Kennedy has been making appearances on her own in place as far afield as Seattle. The familes seem to exist only when the television camera pans their way.

Yet families have been part of American politics ever since Abigail Adams made the long journey by coach from Braintree, Mass.; to visit in New York and Philadelphia and rally supportd for her husband. (She was pleased, she said, to hear in inns along the way so much praise for him and speculation about his future -- all of which, no doubt, she relayed to influential people who came to dine with her or pay their respects.) Together she and John Adams set a pattern for the wife and husband side by side in complementary roles in public life. That model, and that of the whole family working together toward a common goal, seems deeply rooted in the American psyche. Whether it should be in this day and age is a different matter. It just is.

With the proliferation of presidential primaries and the increasing number of self-launching candidates, families who have shared the presidential or vice presidential campaign experience have become a sizable subgroup on the Washington scene. No one of the following scenes of the past decade is remarkable in itself, but they would have been surprising 20 -- even 15 -- years ago:

To anyone who could see them -- one lounging on her bed, the other cross-legged on the floor -- they would seem to be just two girls gossiping on the phone, but they are thousands of miles apart and the information they exchange is rather unusual chitchat.

"Well honestly it's hard to tell how Mother is doing. You really can't tell from the press clips -- she's not getting much coverage yet, you know. I'm not worried about her, but about me. There are some things I just don't agree with Pops about -- gay rights and things like that. What do I say if they ask me?"

"Oh, that's easy," her friend assures her. "I always just said something like, 'My father's position is thus and so, but, of course, he is for the constitutional rights of all citizens.' Then go on and tell them more than they asked -- make the point you really want to make about him, you know."

"We-ell, maybe I can do it, but it scares me to think of it," says the other. "Do you think I should go to New Hampshire?"

"Sure," answers her friend. "They like to see everybody there. Besides," she adds with a trace of nostalgia, "it's sort of fun there. Take your skis." s

The private Georgetown club is very quiet. Only two or three of the larger tables are surrounded by men lunching and talking desultorily. When the two women -- both well-known in Washington -- come in and and are ushered to a banquette there is a nudging and a turning of heads. The first remark of the women who sits with her back to the room carries clearly.

"I can't believe it's been so long since we've seen each other. Now I want to hear all about your campaign -- and then I'll tell you about us . . ." w

"What the hell . . ." says one of the men in puzzled tones to no one in particular. "Their husbands were opposing each other, weren't they?"

The wife of the office-holder is being honored at a lucheon. The invited straggle by -- wives of cabinet members, ambassadors, the Congress. As the wife of a senator draws near, the honoree suddenly leans forward, takes her hand and whispers, "There's someone over there who would like to say hello to you."

The Senate wife looks at the man standing by the window and calls out with pleased surprise as she goes over to greet him. The other guests hear snatches -- queries about her children and his, his wife, her husband.

"He was her secret-service man last time around," explains the honoree to the hostess.

In one small lucheon club I have belonged to for 25 years, we have numbered among our members nine who, at one time or another, found themselves and their children on the national campaign trail -- Bethine Church, Betty Ford, Helen Jackson, Lady Bird Johnson, Stephanie Miller (wife of William Miller, Goldwater's running mate), Claire Schweiker, Nancy Stevenson -- and now, this year, Barbara Bush. Other present or former Washington families who have had the same experience are the Udalls, the McGoverns, the Goldwaters, the Harrises, the Muskies, the Shrivers and, not so long ago, of course, the Humphreys and the Mondales. It is quite a list.

The experiences of this year's campaigning club member, Barbara Bush, are typical. She was described as linking her arm through her husband's when an unexpectedly large crowd turned out to greet him in Illinois after his success in Iowa, and saying, "Oh, let me bask in the glow!"

It was a flash of the warm and funny Barbara her Washington friends know; nevertheless she had certainly earned the right to bask by tour after tour of six-a-day campaign apepearances during the past year, drawing crowds of as much as a hundred to gatherings in homes in places like Forest City, Iowa. She has fielded questions on energy, inflation, foreign policy, what-have-you -- all in terms of her husband's positions -- in interviews for papers like the Oskaloosa Harald, the Beaumont Sunday Enterprise-Journal and the Mobile Register.

Veteran campaign wives note her strategy in anticipating the predictable and currently faddish questions. ("I got so I felt like screaming when they asked me if I didn't get bored with women's teas," says one former campaigner, "They have a fixed idea that that's all we do -- and I finally said, 'No, I just get bored with stupid questions like that.") Barbara Bush forestalls the "don't you feel exploited" don't you feel secondary? don't you wish you had a career of of your own?" -- which are the standard fare of recent years -- when she says firmly, "I am a fortunate woman. I've had the most interesting and exciting life any woman could have. I disagree with George on a few issues -- on some we've literally been on our knees for guidance -- but my responsibility here and now is to present his views. He is the one running for office and the one who will serve." She adds, "I know if I were running, he would do me the same courtesy," thus reminding her listeners that there are political husbands these days. Other political wives nod. (Are the supportive husbands of Ella Grasso, Bella Abzug and Margaret Thatcher seen as exploited?)

Former campaigners can, and often do, compare notes on the anxieties, joys and sorrows, absurdities and the high adventure of campaigning from coast to coast, of "main-streeting," going from small-town kitchen kaffee-klatsches to Park Avenue fund-raisers, from union halls to college campuses, of the terrors of television and the efforts of interviewers to needle them into indiscretions. In general, their attitude is positive, but realistic.

It's a great experience, but it's a juggling act for the wife," says Helen Jackson. "You feel guilty leaving home for the campaign, and you feel guilty leaving the campaign to go home and set things in order there. Then you feel guilty if you don't know the issues well enough and say something to hurt your husband's chances. You just can't satisfy some extremists. I think I blew two states for Scoop-I came home and said, 'Don't go there! Don't go there whatever you do!'" But her cheerful tone indicates that they survived the loss, if there was one, and that she'd be on the trail again if needed.

They share an attitude often overlooked and unrecognized. Campaigning can be high adventure, and winning euphoria. "Coming off a plane and hearing that you're ahead in a presidential primary-well, it's a high like having your first baby," says Bethine Church. "Your know other people have done it, but you feel as if you're the first. Frank and I will never forget it . . . And there are all the crazy things you remember-the little hedge-hopping planes we'd take through thunderstorms just to make a scheduled stop-the night lightning struck the generator in Buttle, Mont., and all the lights went out just as we were about to land!"

They tend to balance the good and the bad. "It really hurts to have old friends and supporters misunderstand you," says Claire Schweiker, "but the great thing was to learn how many wonderful people there are. I came away feeling good about America. It's a growing experience and you never see things quite the same way again."

They are positve, but they are also full of tidbits that are wry commentaries on the new class of political professionals who migrate from campaign to campaign in the hope of ending up in a White House cadre . . . "The advance man lost me for hours-threw a whole day's schedule-and then said that the whereabouts of the candidate's wife was low on the scale of priorities!" . . . "We had a celebrity chairman, but we never got to see the celebrities. I guess John Wayne was campaigning for us, but I don't know -- I never saw him." . . . "There was a county in Indiana and this man got right next to me in every picutre and the press aide just kept nodding at me. Afterward we heard he was the head of the local version of the Mafia" . . . "It got so that they had us on such separate schedules that we ran into each other by accident in a hotel lobby. We were both booked into separate suites and didn't know it. After that we insisted on being in the same place at night -- just went separately during the day." "When I write my book it's going to be called 'Will the Lady in the Red Dress Get Out of the Picture?'" says Baarbara Bush, and you feel she is only half joking.

There are children and wives among us who have felt resentful and used-most notably, among the latter, was the late Marvella Bayh who told about her feelings frankly in her autobography. There are those who have faltered or broken down, but now that there are so many it is clear that the percentage is much lower than in doctors' families, for instance. The concentration of the media on the wounded tends to steretype the campaign family even though the sheer number of wives and family members who affirm the experience make it clear that the real sufferers are in the minority.

It would be less than candid to say that the exposure of some family problems does not give other political families pause. The relentless spotlighting of Joan Kennedy this year is a case in point. Congressional wife Peggy Stanton, former ABC news correspondent and now an author, is vehement in writing about it: "why must she do as she loyally insists she intends to do? . . . Why must she challange the fragility of her convalesence by bringing her wounded psyche to the front lines?" Admittedly Joan Kennedy was steadfast about having made her own decision, but Stanton wonders whether just reading that she was needed did not constitute an irresistible pressure. A Republican, Stanton was equally vehement in writing about the cruel questioning of Joy Baker in 1976. The amount and kind of media attention which has been given in these instances has tended to distort the whole picture.

Instinctively most political familites know that what the voters want is something more solid than the appearance of wife and family for the photo opportunity and then retirement to the sidelines. They want the sense of contact which meeting a faimily member and talking to him or her gives. "It's a matter of the acorn which falls closest to the tree, I suppose," muses Nancy Stevenson, whose first campaign appearances were with her father-in-law, Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential candidate in 1956. "They feel if they've talked to you, they've talked to him."

It brings him down to the human level." says Bea Smith, president of the Congressional Club and wife of Rep. Neal Smith [D-Iowa]. "Why, one tiny town in southeastern Iowa, Dedrick, they were thrilled to death when Jack Carter came, and that Senator Baker's daughter was there that same afternoon." Human contact, the actural exchange of concerns, overcomes apathy. The man comes off the television screen, off the newspage, becomes someone to be involved with. "Four years ago in Hedrick only eight people came to the Democratic caucuses. This year there were 58!"

So the familes fan out. The wives are content to go on. Behind them stands a long tradition: the stern New England tradition of Abigail Adams; the pioneer tradition of frontier after frontier . . . "In the West we have a saying, 'everybody pulls the plow,'" says Bethine Church; and the Southern tradition of the womem who rebuilt the shatered South with veins of iron under a cloak of soft accents and smiling charm. Then remember Lady Bird, true to her Alabama forebears, extricating herself from an auto accident in one of Lyndon Johnson's Senate campaigns, and going on to keep a campaign commitment before she would submit to a check for injuries. They understand the Rosalynn Carter of 1975 and '76 setting out on her own on a tour of souther courthouses-tough terrain for a woman. They remember Martha Taft, wife of Sen. Robert Taft, contender against Eisenhower for the Republican nomination -- such a good speaker that she was sought for support for Republicans everywhere. They remember Muriel Humphrey, "at home in union halls," as she told the labor gathering when she spoke for Carter in Iowa. When Howard Baker's daughter stumps for him she is doing no more than her grandmother Louella Dirksen did. The wife of the late Senate Republican leader from Illinois wrote of taking her husband's place when he was kept in Washington, exhorting the party faithful, and speaking to workers from the back of a flatbed truck.

The campaigning families are confident in what they do. But they do not want to be forced into one mold. . . nor do the wives want to be stereotyped as either Lady Macbeth or victim.