The campaign headquarters of Patricia Shelby, a very southern Daughter of the American Revolution who addressed prospective voters as either "darling" or "sugar," consisted of doily after lace doily of dainty tea cookies, one silver punch bowl and an ambience suggesting that she was the candidate to lead DAR through its next three years of patriotic zeal.

Whether it was the cookies or her Beulah, Miss., charm ("Oh darling, the town's so small, I can't even tell you"), Patricia Shelby won Saturday's race for DAR president general by something of a landslide. The vote: 1,707 to 625.

It was the talk and the gossip and most definitely the highlight of the 89th Continental Congress of the DAR, now under way at Constitution Hall.

This year, 4,000 Daughters have made the pilgrimage to the four-day spring ritual that includes reports from 50 state regents, national defense remarks last night by ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly, a White House audience with Jimmy Carter, and prayers for the American hostages in Iran. "We're deeply concerned about it, of course," said Jeannette Baylies, outgoing president general.

Also included, unofficially, was their apparent need to defend an organization that is growing steadily younger in membership but that is still fighting a crusty, nearly all-white, fuss-budget image.

The younger Daughters, ranging in age from 18 to 35, and comprising about a third of the membership seem to steadfastly support the ideals of the general body. This includes opposition to the ERA.

"It just doesn't touch my life," said Marnee Cobb, a 27-year-old junior high school teacher from Lakeland, Fla. "I think it's for the professional, exceptional woman and not for the everyday woman. I don't think it offers anything I didn't already have under the Constitution."

But the ERA and national politics were sidelights during the weekend at Constitution Hall. The main absorption and entertainment was clearly the internal election for national DAR officers, held every three years. This was partly because the last contested race was in 1974, but also because DAR elections are, to the interested DAR voter at least, an entertainment anyway.

They are sort of hybrids, combining tea-room etiquette with the year-long nationwide campaigning needed to be elected head of a 209,000-member service organization that has some 150 employes and a payroll of about $1.25 million. It all culminates in a few frenzied pre-election days in Washington, spiced by understated gold campaign pins, politicking in taxicabs and some feline sniping that shows up even in these polite ladies who can trace their lineage back to the American Revolution.

For Patricia Shelby, a silver brunette who wore gold shell earrings and gold pins and a gold shell necklace because it was her campaign emblem, the campaign started exactly a year ago.She was already serving as first vice president general of the DAR, and so had little trouble throwing together a slate of 11 women with good geographic representation.

She also had little trouble throwing together money, what with the 1,500-acre cotton, soybean and rice farm outside of Beulah.(DAR candidates must finance their own campaigns.) She began traveling, speaking at state DAR meetings, and advertising in the DAR magazine.

For Winnifred Mason, the former District of Columbia state regent and wife of retired George Washington University dean of engineering, the campaign began in January. She didn't have as much time or money as Shelby, and so had to play catch-up.

Things didn't really get good unitl the end of last week, though, when the Daughters started pouring into their Capital Hilton hotel rooms and visiting the campaign suites. The DAR allows absolutely no politicking in Constitution Hall, considering it unappropriate to the spirit of the institution.

There were teas sponsored by state DAR organizations where the campaign slogans and pamphlets swirled. A sample from the Hilton's Friday schedule: The Alabama Tea, 5-6:30 p.m., the Senate Room. The Florida Tea, 4-5:30 p.m., the Federal Room. The Golden West Tea, 4-6 p.m., the Congressional Room. The New Jersey Tea . . .

The pamphlets and slogans generally consisted of generalities, this being because the DAR has no two-party system and each president general is bound to uphold the organization's patriotic, historic and educational objectives. The work of the leadership thus remains about the same, and elections appear to be won or lost on personality and image.

"Mrs. Shelby is charming and gracious," Kathy Gess, Shelby's campaign manager for West Virginia, was saying outside Constitution Hall under a shade tree. "She just has the personality."

"A typical southern belle," Jean Elliott of Shepardstown, W.Va., chimed in, paying Shelby a high compliment.

Some other scenes from the last few DAR election days:

"How old is Mrs. Mason?" Johnsie Bailey of D.C. was saying in response to a reporter's question. "I have no idea. I always think of her as a kid. Seventy? Oh no, she's not 70."

This conversation, which also included a mention that Shelby was in her 50s, occured in the Mason campaign suite. Downstairs, in the Shelby suite, the conversation went like this:

"Mrs. Shelby is not only very young, but she is eminently qualified," Barbara Taylor of Potomac was saying of her candidate. "How old is she? Oh, in her late 40s, I think. Mrs. Mason is in her early 70s."

Neither Mason or Shelby was inclined to set the record straight on this one, although diverse and unofficial reports had their ages at Shelby, 51, and Mason, 70. The age issue was actually a political issue, since the DAR membership seems to believe a younger president general can only help its old-lady image.

"We have separate rooms in this hotel and we never get to see our wives," Jim Harrison was complaining. "Maybe if we're lucky, we get a kiss on the cheek."

Husbands do not fit in at the DAR congress. They either come because their wives make them, or out of an altruistic "she goes to my conferences, so I go to hers" belief. This year, about a dozen husbands showed up among the 4,000 women, spending their days sightseeing, going out for long lunches, and in the case of Harrison, vacuuming the Shelby campaign headquarters one wee hour in the morning.

"I don't think I'll ever get mine to come back," Frances Marshall of Greenwood, S.C., said of her husband while standing in the Constitution Hall cafeteria line. "Last night it was a hundred reports. You can't believe it -- 7:30 p.m. to quarter of one. We left at 11:30, and he's still not speaking to me."

"They're accusing us of trying to abolish National Defense Night," Barbara Taylor from the Shelby campaign said of the Mason campaign. "To say that we're trying to abolish National Defense Night in the DAR is akin to saying we're tryin to abolish apple pie and motherhood."

"I didn't accuse anybody of anything," was how Mason responded later that evening.

"Oh, they have done some terrible things," Taylor of the Shelby campaign had said earlier. "For one thing they have made some glaring accusations against the current administration."

"With all those shells," Johnsie Bailey from the Mason campaign said of the Shelby campaign, "my first reaction was -- is she in the shell business?"

"We're so weary, we can hardly visit with you," said Alberta Lambeth of Ottumwa, Iowa. She was eating lasagna in the Constitution Hall cafeteria, cooling down and recovering from an hour-long wait to vote for president general. The polling booth line, stretching from the hall's D Street entrance, meandered around the building onto 17th Street, and then took a third turn onto C. Some women had waited three hours in the steady spring sunshine.

By 5:15 p.m. Saturday, the long wait, political swipes and election were over with.Patricia Shelby had won, and now her next duty was to march regally down the aisle of Consitutition Hall's great auditorium.

Which she did Saturday evening in a long, white glittery dress with ribbons and medals marking her ancestry. A Sousa march played grandly, she waved to the crowd, and American patriotism reigned supreme.