Backstage, it's as tense as the New Orleans Saints' locker room before an away game with the Oakland Raiders. As the introductions are made and the television lights adjusted, this year's contestants in the International Platform Association's Oratorical Superbowl for high school students try to clear the jabberwocky from their minds.

Dean Clancy, a 6-foot-2, 135-pounder out of Denver, kneels behind a curtain and furrows his brow. The right lens of his eyeglasses is cracked, but his vision is clear -- he wants to win. Clancy earned $16,000 in scholarship money earlier this year by sweeping the American Legion's national speech contest. Still, he is all nerves. He gets up from a crouch and walks off his butterflies.

Connie Jean Miller, captain of the Washington High School Demonettes in Washington, Iowa, and a member of the choir, basketball team and foreign-language club, sits upright in her chair, eyes set, ankles together, hands folded in her lap. Her set speech on working as a bookkeeper and machine operator at the National Bank of Washington earned her a national championship in a San Antonio competition of the Office Education Association. She's a little nervous but doesn't let on.

Sam Smith is all Cool. On the eve of his 18th birthday, Smith works the backstage area like an old pol, and emits the charisma of a television preacher. In a black polyester suit, conservative dotted red tie, white shirt (with two silver Cross pens in the breast pocket) and black patent-leather shoes, Smith shakes hands with the other contestants for what has to be the 15th time. Not for nothing has he won competitions sponsored by the American Legion, Reader's Digest and the Optimist Club International. "I'm a Reagan Republican," says Smith. Clancy looks worried -- maybe this prep-school kid from Vicksburg, Miss., will prove too much.

Clancy opens up the competition with a six-minute, 40-second speech on the Fourth Amendment. "Ever since Charles I . . ." and he is off into the intricacies of the right to privacy. His hand motions resemble the forced moves of swimming-pool salesmen on late-night TV ads. Karate chops for emphasis. Cupped hands for sincerity.

Clancy gets a warm round of applause at the Hyatt Regency. He is glad to hear it because the audience is filling out the ballots. "I wasn't too nervous once I got going," he says, climbing down the steps. "My feet were shaking, but the top half of my body was okay."

Miller opts for a lectern instead of a mike. She looks up, smiles and she's off: "I work with nu;merous amounts of modern equipment," she says. "But my favorite has to be running the proof machine. When I punch in the debits, they must equal the credits . . ."

Miller works her way through paper-shredding, check-counting and monthly business cycles before she gets to the inspirational centerpiece of her speech -- "It Couldn't Be Done" by Edgar A. Guest: Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing That 'cannot be done," and you'll do it.

The applause for Miller is muted. As she walks off the stage, she is smiling, braces glittering, her lavender suit glowing under the hot lights.

Smith uncrosses his legs, unclasps his hands, offers a passing word of congratulation to the others -- again -- and climbs to the stage. He pins on his lavaliere microphone with all the determined calm of Walter Cronkite preparing for his last broadcast.

Forget that his speech is laden with every cliche in William Safire's dictionary -- Smith's conservative speech on "apathy in America" is paced with a Sophoclean sense of rise and fall and rise, complication and resoltuion. And it all come out perfect in the end.

In the imporvised press lounge of the Hyatt Regency, the three speakers wait for the ballots to be tallied. In the meantime, they offer some opinions on current events and what their high-school contemporaries are thinking these days.

All three are anti-premarital sex, anit-ERA ("We're for the 'E' and the 'R' but not the 'A'") and eager to enter careers in law, politics or business.

"I was a conservative and aware of it since I was 8," says Clancy. "The idea now is that maybe change isn't so good." While Clancy cites a decrease in liberalism among his contemporaries, he says about premarital sex, "That's one thing, I think, that we're going to have to live with." Smithe agrees. "I certainly plan to wait until I'm married," he says.

"I'm not a women's libber, that's for sure," says Miller.

Just as Smith announces that he would like to win a congressional seat "when I'm somewhere between 25 and 30," the organizers came in with the Superbowl results. All conversation stops dead.

A hand touches the winner's shoulder. Miller and Clancy offer their hands, and Sam Smith, ever the politician, tells them both how very close a match it really was. Then he treats himself to a quick tilt of the head and an ever-so-slight victory smile.