A golden-shine doorplate at the end of the hallway bore the words, "Friends of Gary Hart." Inside the downtown office was the Colorado senator's newest and choicest Iowa friend, William Romjue. Twenty-two months before the presidential election, 12 months before Iowa's precinct caucuses and seven days before Hart was due in town for another look-see, Romjue and four assistants were working as if not a millisecond could be wasted in the drive to get their man into the White House.

In talking to Romjue, a personable and informed man, I found myself thinking that I had left things to the last minute. Other press people, including a network camera crew, had already been in, getting the jump on how Hart is getting the jump on Mondale, who has gotten the jump on Glenn, who has the jump on Cranston, who has...

Romjue is a practiced jumper. He worked Iowa for Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign, starting in April 1979, 19 months before voting day. He has been a Democratic county chairman, knows the angles of Iowa politics like a bank-shooting pool player, and can count. Mondale, he says, came to Iowa 11 times in 1982.

That's what Romjue will be getting Gary Hart to do this year, with Hart paying attention to what Romjue says a future president needs to pay attention to in Iowa.

I'm aware that all this should be (a) maddening, (b) depressing or (c) the last step before writing to Dick Gregory and urging him to consider another run for the presidency. But for me it's (d) none of the above. Like Iowans, I support the sooner-is-better approach to presidential politics. With Ronald Reagan in the White House, and few signs yet that he or his advisers even understand the problems facing the country, the soonness of the current revving in Iowa is already late.

All the flaws of early politicking are on display here, for sure. I mean no offense to Romjue, but the early line he's presenting on Hart -- he's the "issues candidate," he likes to "make things work" -- comes off as a stale line. When I went through a sheaf of Hart papers that Romjue assembled for me, it worsened. The senator's speeches are deep in the prose of speechwriterese: quotation book loftiness from Tennyson, Churchill and Douglas MacArthur, just the authors Iowa farmers are into these days.

Reformers, seeing these impingements on rational politics, regularly appear about this time to appeal for less fury and more calm in the nominating process. An appealer during the last campaign was Terry Sanford, a former Democratic governor of North Carolina who once had presidential hopes. In August 1980, Sanford wrote in The Atlantic Monthly that the "existing maze of primaries" and the "campaign survival exercise" must go. He called on "party leadership" to create "substantial changes" in the current system.

The governor's arguments would have been persuasive had he not gone on to fault the 1980 caucuses and primaries for the damage they did to Sen. Howard Baker: "I wish Howard Baker could have been considered more carefully." By whom? By "thinking delegates," said Sanford.

Actually, the voters in the early primaries may have been thinking with rare sharpness when they retired Baker early and decisively. Baker is a politician known for his zeal in keeping alive the $3.6 billion wasteful Clinch River breeder reactor project in his home state.

Reformers act as though the defects of presidential campaigning are new. In 1922, H. L. Mencken, reflecting on the Harding-Cox campaign of 1920, said that in America, "We load a pair of palpably tin cannon with blank cartridges charged with talcum powder, and so let fly. Here one may howl over the show without any uneasy reminder that it is serious... I hold that this elevation of politics to the plane of undiluted comedy is peculiarly American, that nowhere else on this disreputable ball has the art of sham-battle been developed to such fineness."

Despite the ridicule of Mencken and the appeals of Sanford, one reason the excesses of the caucus and primary system will endure is that we allow candidates like Hart, Cranston and Glenn to keep working as senators. They were elected to serve their constituents, and now they are serving themselves. It ought to be one job at a time.