Every four years they storm Washington, young pilgrims in a swirl of campaign flyers, urgent minutiae, TV dinners. Cardboard boxes serve as dressers and borrowed mattresses as beds. They'll sleep maybe five hours, grab the papers, then head for another 15 of "Re-elect President Carter," "Kennedy '80," George Bush, John Anderson. . . .

The young Washington campaign worker 1980: overworked, overqualified, almost always underpaid. Hoeplessly enthusiastic, Ferociously ambitious.

Almost all under 258 they're the foot soldiers of the political headquarters. Business majors and 4.0 Ivy Leaguers will answer phones, lick labels, shuttle Danish, make beer runs on primary nights.

In 1960 there were the legendary "Boiler Room Girls" of the Kennedy campaign; in 1968, Eugene McCarthy's long-hairded legions tried to unseat a president. Richard Nixon had his nicely manicured Young Republicans. And now, the "Hey, you" kids of 1980.

One promising young Carter volunteer named Doug Michelman has written exactly three memos in as many months. Usually he takes office messages.

"It's scutwork," he says.

Still, there's always the chance for glory, for that special moment when the top staffer gets sick and you, you standing there by the Xerox machine, are asked to perform. In New Hampshire, a 22-year-old named Susan Starr suddenly found herslef handling simultaneous NBC and CBS requests for interviews with her candidate, John Anderson.

"NBC," she decided, irked by the network's campaign coverage, "could just wait awhile." They did.

There's glamor. "No matter who I call," says a 23-year-old Kennedy volunteer, "when I say I'm from Kennedy National Headquarters, there's always that pause."

Numbering in the thousands, the workers are of a generation that watched Vietnam from grade school and Watergate from junior high. They've been touched little by a Far Eastern war, muchmore by Western inflation. "Remember when Big Macs were 50 cents?" says one. "Now they're $1.05."

But idealism, interwoven with a fresh view of government via Civics 101, marks most of them. From one peppy Jerry Brown volunteer: "You're informing people of our great democratic process." Collectively, it's a conservative pep, restrained by a belief in fiscal austerity, by fears they won't be able to buy the homes their parents did.

The dream of the White House is a secret delight. No one admits to thinking about it, but most everyone does. Because . . . you just never know.

"I didn't start out with any idea of coming to the White House with the president," says Jo Carpenter, Jody Powell's press aide who met Jimmy Carter at a steamy barbecue in Augsut 1975. She was an Air Force jet mechanic who'd never even voted before.

"On the way home," she remembers, "I thought, "This man is going to be president and I want to help him." It's changed my whole life."

That's seductive stuff to the young campaign worker of 1980. A few samples from the crop: True Bliss

"I was almost in tears, to tell you the truth," says Tim Pagel, 22, frizzy-haired and fresh out of Manitowoc, Wis. "I was stunned."

He is talking about Dec. 5, 1979, the day the Ronald Reagan people told him he was being made a staff member in Washington. "He'd be here when I left at night, and he'd be here when I came in in the mornings," says Kay Ford, the office manager. "Finally, we just hired him."

It was a blissful victory for the University of Wisconsin graduate who came to Washington in August, tried a few weeks of George Washington Law Shcool, then decided he wasn't sure he wanted to be a lawyer for the rest of his life. So he quit, got a job waiting tables at Rumors, and one day, walked into Regans headquarters.

They awarded him with a volunteer job clipping newspapers. Pagel thought it was wonderful. He'd idolized Reagan for years.

"It was Reagan all the way," he says. "My loyalty is not at all cheap."

His salary, at $175 a week, is big money on the campaign worker circuit. It buys: One floor of a small house, with a roommate, in Falls Church. An occasional beer at the Hawk & Dove, too.

"Back in Wisconsin," he says, "it would be clearly enough to live on. In Washington, I keep myself fed."

His parents send him no money, so he works six hours, making $20, on Sundays telephoning for the Republican National Committee. That's about the only spare time he has, considering he works for Reagan 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and around 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.

Which brings up the question of what else he does besides compiling daily news summaries and calling radio statins for Ronald Reagan. The question, as it turns out, is a hard one.

"What else do I do?" he asks startled. He looks at the ceiling. "Oh boy . . . Well, I read a lot of newspapers. Uh . . . I watch sports. Well . . ." He pauses again.

"I basically don't do a whole lot. I'm addicted to this thing."

Epilogue: Three days ago, Pagel was fired. Reagan, having spent over 70 percent of his primary budget, had to cut back on his staff, and the bottom of it went first.

"I'm looking for another job," says Pagel, who still plans to volunteer every spare moment he has. "What else can I do? I don't have any money.

"It's heartbreaking. You've put in so much effort, and all of a sudden, you are out in the streets. But it's part of the business. I would never for a minute hold this against the governor." Idiotwork

There was one good party, one hell of a good party, at John Anderson headquarters the night of the Massachusetts and Vermont primaries.

Budweiser, Almaden wine, chocolate chip cookies, popcorn. And Walter Cronkite, who at 10:37 p.m. announced: "John Anderson is the leading actor in both races."

Screams. Hugs. Kisses. "I can't ---- ing believe it!" yelled Derek Kirkland.

Kirkland is 22, blond, curly, Princeton '79. His father is an investment banker in Manhattan who saw to it that his son went to the right schools in America and England.

Now this son, instead of going to the right law school, is a paralegal at Steptoe & Johnson who skips lunch so he can get to Anderson campaign headquarters on Capitol Hill at 4. He works until 9 or 10, doing what he pleasantly calls "idiotwork". He says he loves it.

I can be part of a great event," he says, "even if it means Xeroxing. It's the kind of thing where, in 30 years, you'll be saying, 'Oh when I was back with the Anderson campaign . . .'"

He's an ideologue, wholly committed to the platform of Anderson. He likes the candidate's proposal for a 50-cents-a-gallon gas tax as well as his stance against the B1 bomber and MX missile.

As for his own future, Kirkland will be the first to admit that Xeroxing for a candidate still a far distance from the White House may not be the wisest career move.

"It's not going to get me anywhere," he says. "But I feel young. I feel like I have time. It's the folly of youth, the folly of idealistic youth." Downfalls

Micahel Frazier is highly expendable in the Kennedy campagin. He knows it.

"It's competitive," he says. "There are a large number of people who want to do what I'm doing. Other than the president, you're talking about the second largest constituency in America. When you work for a man of that power -- that's a coup. That is privilege."

What Frazier does is help set up student offices for Kenendy across the country. It means being on the phone about 50 hours a week. He doesn't get paid, he lives with his mother in Forestville, Md., and he thinks maybe its time for a social life.

"I hope a lot of girls read this," he says, smiling broadly. "Tell them they can call me at Kennedy headquarters."

His first real job was right after graduation from Central Connecticut State College last year. He went to work as a personnel consultant in the spring, heard Kennedy's announcement speech at Boston's Faneuil Hall in the fall, then joined with the Washington office this winter.

"I just walked in here one morning," he says, gesturing at the former Cadillac dealership on 22nd Street that now holds Kennedy '80. "I was here every day, and they got to know my face. One day they said, 'You're here all the time. Would you like to work as a student and youth coordinator? And I said 'Sure.'"

The trick, at least on the Kennedy campaign,where even volunteers have to fill out application forms, is to work hard and get noticed.

"There are rivalries here," he explains. "Jealousies. Everyone wants to play the major part. It's not killing the campaign, but I guess you could say some things don't get done when your sources of energy could be channeled another way."

But Frazier remains intensely loyal -- the trademark of all Kennedy workers.

"When the senator hurts, I hurt," he says. "When it's a downfalla for him, it's a downfall for me." Limbo

She is straight out of the University of Texas, an Alpha Kappa Theta, blond, the daughter of a retired president of a Dallas public-relations firm. She drives a white Jaguar, or did, until the brakes went out last week.

So she was in a roommate's car, coming home from a skiing weekend, when she heard the radio announcement.

John Connally, her candidate, the name she'd heard all of her life, was dropping out. Just like that. On the car radio, right as they pulled home into Old Town Alexandria.

"I just flipped," says Nancy Hunter. "I didn't know it was going to be so sudden. I was sort of in shock."

Since September, she's worked at the Conally for President national headquarters in Arlington. She counts money in the finance department, and made $100 a week until everybody went on volunteer status a month or so back. Now her dad supports her.

With Connally out, she figures she'll stay around and tie up loose ends until April, then go back to Dallas and find, as she says, "a real job." Insurance or banking she hopes.

"I'm sort of in limbo," she says. "I can't believe it's over. You feel like you want to go out and yell to the whole world -- "You've made a mistake!'"

She, for one, insists she didn't. "I had two or three offers from banks and insurance firms when I graudated," she says, "but that's what everybody was doing. I just didn't want to do that, at least not in the next few years. . .

"This was a chance to work for something that might never happen again. It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal you can't ever pass up." Bedazzled

Here is what Andy Goodman did one day at Carter-Mondale headquarters:

Got a list of the 50 states. Got another list of the percentage of campaign leaflets entitled "Re-elect President Carter -- A Solid Man in a Sensitive Job" sent to those states a while back. Got a calculator. Figured out, using the first set of percentages, what new number of 150,000 leaflets should go to the states this time around.Wrote it down, neatly. Took it to his supervisor, who changed a few things. Redid it, then put it in a big black notebook.

It was not glamorous work.

But there are rewards. For instance, this 21-year-old Pitzer College student from the Los Angeles suburbs has met Chip Carter as well as Carter supporter and singer Stephen Stills.

And on his 21st birthday, Goodman saw the play "The Elephant Man" from the president's box at the Kennedy Center.

"It was great" he remembers. "There's a coatroom on the right and a bathroom on the left -- a nicer bathroom than I've seen in most homes. Then you walk into the box and a couple of people turn their heads to see who's there."

Goodman has turquoise eyes, gray flannel pants and a sense of earnestness about him. He likes to eat pecan pie at Cylde's, dance at Deja Vu, and see all those people he's read about.

"Sometimes when you sit back and think about the people you're meeting, the ones you see on TV," he says. "I don't know . . . I don't have a word for it. Sometimes when I think about it, I get, you know, dazzled." Cadavers & Liberals

"I'd go out with these guys to a bar, and they'd start talking about muscles of the spine," says Kenney Weinstein, 18 and horn-rimmed. "I just wasn't into it."

Not surprising, considering that this shy George Bush volunteer and former premed student felt his first political stirrings at age 11. That was on the way home from bar mitzvah preparations at the synagogue in Rego Park, Queens. One day, strolling past the headquarters, he joined up with George McGovern.

"The only reason," says Weinstein, who counts Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley and Woody Allen as his heroes, "was that his headquarters were a lot closer to my house than Nixon's were."

After handing out McGovern leaflets, as a preteenager, Weinstein decided he'd made a big mistake. So he went Republican, all the way into biomedical school at New York's City College last fall.But he hated the cadavers andliberals.

"I've read," he says, "as opposed to most of my friends. They fall into the New York liberal, Greenwich Village Coke-for-lunch crowd."

He quit shcool after eight weeks and four days, strolling this time into the George Bush office in Manhattan. He was rewarded with an envelope-stuffing job, which got boring after 3 1/2 weeks. So he went to visit his brother in Washington, popped into Bush headquarters in Alexandria, and was anointed with a new job in early December.

"I'm in charge of expediating delivery of bulk shipments to our field offices," he says grandly. In other words, he packs campaign buttons into carboard boxes. No salary, either; his parents support him.

And he likes this?

"Oh, definitely," he responds brightly, revealing that his IQ has been recorded at 147."I feed very rewarded by what I'm doing. Knowing what's going on here, being on the inside. I can't think of the right term . . ."

He contemplates his breast pocket, then looks up. "Political groupie," he says. Lots of Options

The day after Howard Baker quit the presidential race, staffer John Vogt actually noticed the weather outside. "I was kind of walking along, and it was warmer," he says. "And I thought, 'God, I missed the whole winter.' It didn't seem like it had been six months. On the other hand, there were a lot of days down here that I thought would never end."

They usually began at 5:30 a.m., when he would begin sending snippets of Baker speeches to radio stations across the country. They ended at 8 p.m., except for Monday and Thursday nights. That's when Vogt, 20, from Oak Ridge, Tenn., went to his classes at Georgetown.

Last week, after the Masschusetts primary and after Baker quit, the once-bustling office near the Capitol was pretty dreary. Staffers stood around looking at a map of America with little flags marking strategic states like Florida and California that didn't matter anymore. The day before, a lot of volunteer workers had cried.

"I'd do it all again," says Vogt, blue-eyed and blow-dried, wearing a crisp blue shirt with Dior on its pocket. "Sure, there have been times when I questioned whether it was worth it all -- folding and stuffing envelopes at midnight, and getting out of bed at 4:30 to come down here.

"But I don't have any regrets. I don't find myself saying, . . . I should have worked for Ronald Reagan, I would rather work hard for Howard Baker than anybody else."

Already Vogt has gotten a call from another campaign, although he won't say who. All he will say is that he's just not sure. Lots of options, he figures. In the meantime, there's cleanup work on the aborted Baker campaign.

Suddenly he asks to have his comment about working for Baker and absolutely nobody else read back to him.He listens, carefully.

"Make it read," she says, "I would rather work for Howard Baker than for a candidate whom I didn't believe in."

Options. Fun, Fun, Fun

One of her early memories is walking arund the White House singing "We Shall Overcome" with her mother. She marched in antiwar deomnstrations with her father, and watched both her parents make 600 sandwiches for Martin Luther King supporters who camped on the Mall and named it Resurrection City.

Julie Furth is almost genetically political. So political, in fact, that she says she could have worked for any Democratic campaign. She picked Jerry Brown because her boyfriend did first.

She grew up in Northwest Washington, has a pretty, round face, sparkling eyes and is an American politics major at Catholic University. Because it's her senior year she's had time to join the fervent group of 15 or so who make up Brown's organization in Washington. No headquarters, but lots of meetings in small apartments.

One day last week, Julie Furth stood on a street corner and asked people to sign a petition that would put Brown's name on the bllot in the District. She didn't get enough, and the mother of a friend hung up on her when she asked if she, too, might like to sign.

"I almost cried," Furth says.

She has also helped organize a fund-raiser in Milwaukee where Brown never showed, and taken jeers from other students who remark that she's working for a flake. "It hurts," she says.

The point of it all?

"Who wouldn't want to go to one of the fund-raisers?" she asks. "And setting up for one is like setting up for a party. It's fun because I'm just a college student. I'm not 35 years old with $2 million in the bank."