This GOP convention isn't so much a Texas celebration as a Texas exaggeration, and judging from the rah-rah, "We love you, Ron" atmosphere, these Republicans can't get enough of it. Armadillos. Ostrich cowboy boots. Chili that sends you screaming for the Lone Star. Helicopters to take you to barbecues. Plus hundreds and hundreds of parties, where the same Republicans you see in Washington take off their silk power ties and tie red bandanas around their necks. Some look pretty strange.

All weekend long, up and down the Stemmons Freeway, back and forth to the Southfork Ranch of J.R. Ewing fame, all the while sweating in the 105-degree heat (even the temperatures are exaggerated), the Republicans did one of the things they're best at -- which is going to parties. But from Sen. Paul Laxalt's barbecue to a mobbed reception for Rep. Jack Kemp to a concert by Luciano Pavarotti, the Republicans, amazingly, dressed down.

Dallas, a city of hard-working bankers and rich people, has seen to that. "We're certainly pretending to be less tony than we normally are," observed Molly Ivins, the state political columnist of the Dallas Times Herald. "We're affecting a cowboy culture. We never see a steer here from one year's end to the other. But we're doing this because we think this is what people want."

Meanwhile, the White House thinks things are just great. After all, Reagan is way ahead and Geraldine Ferraro has her own problems. "She's doing wonderful," said Ed Rollins, the campaign director of Reagan-Bush '84. "We're just glad she's back to earth."

But the best scene this weekend may have been the five baby armadillos that served as conversation pieces at a sweltering barbecue and chili cook-off. The armadillos' owners had to keep them cool by spraying them constantly from a water bottle, prompting one Dallas zoo official to remark, "It ain't right, but they won't die."

"At least," said Elaine Corn, one of the cook-off judges, "they didn't put them in the chili." Up With the Whirlybirds

Then there was the party that had it all and more. In addition to the basic barbecue/ranch/country-western-music combo, the bash that oil and gas company Diamond Shamrock and Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt threw today had the ultimate party game: helicopter rides.

Nearly 100 press and political people clambered onto the copters here for a 40-minute ride to Riverside Farms, Diamond Shamrock's executive retreat in Hamilton, Tex., south of here. It wasn't a fun trip for everybody, however. At least one helicopter was struck by lightning en route. ("How could you tell," asked one partygoer, "Oh, you could just tell. It was bouncing all around us" was the response.) Another meek 100 drove out.

NBC's Tom Brokaw, in shiny new cowboy boots, slept most of the way out, missing the view from above of miles and miles of Texas, which can definitely be described as flat.

"All Texas ranches are like this," said the new NBC News president, Lawrence Grossman, as he looked out past the clear blue swimming pool, manicured tennis courts, air-conditioned tent, and cheery women in denim and frilly white refilling the iced tea.

Guests also received small bags filled with peanut brittle made on the ranch, and among those taking in the ranch were Idaho Sen. James McClure, U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Wick, White House counsel Fred Fielding, syndicated columnist Rowland Evans and Nevada Rep. Barbara Vucanovich.

But atypical as the site may have been, it seemed perfectly compatible with the general party atmosphere this weekend. If you're going to show off Texas, you don't want to show off some dry, dusty ranch, now, do you?

"It's just great," said Carol Laxalt, as she and her husband greeted the guests stumbling from the helicopters, their hair disarrayed and their ears ringing from the noise of the chopper blades.

"Everything's going just great," said the senator. "I don't know what Ewing's place looks like, but this is better."

And aside from filling several thousand people with barbecue, what will the convention accomplish?

"We want to show people we're a mainstream party. We think the Democrats in San Francisco clearly abandoned the mainstream by the platform they adopted."

But wasn't all the enthusiasm a little too close to euphoria?

"You can't afford to be too overconfident," said Laxalt, "not when you're a Republican. I think a lot of people don't want us to be dewy-eyed."

Laxalt didn't need to worry, at least not at Riverside Farms. There, everyone looked a little more sweaty than dewy-eyed. Bush and Barbecue

There was yet another barbecue tonight, this one with air conditioning inside the Apparel Mart, the huge wholesale center for clothes. It was given by the Texas friends of Vice President Bush, who came tieless and in short sleeves.

"I will not inflict upon you any political observations except that it is great to be in a city full of people who are upbeat about the United States of America," Bush told the crowd. "What a contrast to San Francisco."

Everybody sat on plastic chairs at round tables with cactus centerpieces, and almost everybody had an opinion about Geraldine Ferraro.

"Looks to me like they've got a hell of a problem," said Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming about the finances of the vice presidential candidate's husband.

"They may have used a few tax shelters," said Maureen Reagan, the daughter of the president. "I'll be very surprised if it's much more than that."

Wandering through the cavernous mart was David Mellor, a conservative member of the British Parliament who is here as an observer. "We experimented with your combination of politics and music and fun at a rally during our last election, and it worked quite well," he said. "We learned a lot from your campaign technique. I always have a really great time over here." Penned Party Pachyderm

"I feel a little like a fish out of water in a place like this," said national security adviser Robert McFarlane, looking around at the upscale political commotion twirling around him tonight at the Neiman-Marcus store in downtown Dallas. "The president has directed that I not take part in political commentary."

The party was given by Philip Hawley, chairman and chief executive officer of Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc. for U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole and Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler. It was a real administration event, including people like U.S. Information Agency director Charles Z. Wick, former Reagan aide Nancy Reynolds, White House counsel Fred Fielding and former deputy attorney general Ed Schmults.

Asked what the Republicans were going to do to make their convention exciting, Schmults said, "Fred's gonna streak on Wednesday."

"Real classy, Ed," said Fielding.

As has become routine, there was a baby elephant named "Dutch" penned in next to the Hartmann luggage. The Press of Events

The Sunday night social rounds continued at the Newsweek-Washington Post party at the Hall of State in Fair Park (site of the state fair and the Cotton Bowl). Several hundred journalists mixed with several hundred politicians, all of them pursuing their own ends, but doing it with a smile.

Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler was very content to talk about the role of women and the convention and the effect of the Democrats' choice of Geraldine Ferraro: "I think it started earlier," she said. "I think the president's interest in the advancement of women has been carried out by his appointments and they've made a difference. I think this prompted a Democratic response, which maybe prompted a counterpoint to bring the women to the fore, but they were already in place.

"I think it really was an outstanding record that really went unnoticed." Heckler will be addressing the convention Monday night, about, as she put it, "domestic affairs."

Other guests being talkative about some things and reticent about others included Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, USIA Director Charles Z. Wick, White House press secretary James Brady, Maureen Reagan, Interior Secretary William Clark, U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, columnist George Will and TV team Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.

Clark looked at a scribbling journalist and said, "What am I doing? I'm working this evening.

"Since I was on the bench and then three years in National Security, I felt myself precluded from participating in this type of action and speechmaking." Clark had just returned from a trip to California and Arizona where he had been "talking water issues." He said that during the convention he's willing to talk to people about whatever they're interested in and added, "I hope we can get away from the generalities. We have a lot to talk about."

Much of the socializing occurred in the parking lot, where people were rushing out of cars or into them. Sen. Howard Baker moved from cluster of reporters to political cronies to cluster of reporters attempting to get to the open door of a limousine.

The journalists' chatter included discussion of the National Journal's daily convention newspaper.

"All we're interested in is the convention," said publisher John Sullivan. "Our feeling with this paper is that it's conceivable on Page One, below the headline 'Other News,' we might say 'The Russians Invaded France. Period.' "

There were of course, those few who have already soured on the convention. They spent their time complaining about the impending boredom. But Walter Cronkite, the voice of convention history, remained philosophical.

"The contest," he said, "will be to see if it's more boring than the '56 convention." The Minority Party

All of it could have been right out of a Texas soap -- the big sky, the sprawling white mansion, the horses grazing in the foreground. Giving out Texas welcomes and yellow roses were cowgirls wearing navy satin tights and vests, sparkling 10-gallon hats and plastic chaps. In the evening's 100-degree heat, sweat rolled down their legs. But they kept on smiling.

And on the tables there was even big money -- $100 smackers with J.R.'s picture on them. But the Ewings weren't home on their range last night at Southfork Ranch, about 25 miles north of Dallas. So receiving about 600 curious Republican convention delegates and party workers was Omaha entrepreneur Lawrence E. King Jr., chairman of the National Black Republican Council's business committee. King, who will sing the national anthem at Tuesday's convention session, and other businessmen put up the money for a gala evening of ribs, beans, coleslaw and pecan pie.

"Blacks have for so long felt they weren't part of the Republican Party, so we're giving this party to show them they are," said King, respectably resplendent in white with sparkling gold chains around his neck.

Maureen Reagan drove up by limousine long enough to clinch the evening's black vote for her father in case anybody was in doubt. Arriving later was Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce, who did a few turns around the dance floor before returning in his limousine to Dallas. For all practical purposes, Reagan and Pierce represented the GOP officialdom.

"There are more substantive ways to show blacks they are wanted than to go to a party," said Wright L. Lassiter Jr., president of Bishop College and a member of the Dallas welcoming committee.

A Republican convert who switched seven years ago, Lassiter said that it does blacks no good to think that Republican business interests are of no concern to them.

"The current administration has done more to stabilize the economy than any in a long while. That growth may have been at a price, and the poor may have been neglected. If true, then people like me should be in the party because that's the only way you can hope to have the interest of special interest heard," Lassiter said. Fit to Be Tied

Credentials are terribly important at conventions, but there are credentials, and there are credentials. The most innovative so far may have been introduced tonight at a party for international visitors to the convention.

"This? It's Adam Smith," said Martin Anderson, former White House assistant for domestic affairs, pointing to his tie decorated with small faces in profile.

"Look at his," said former White House national security adviser Richard Allen, gesturing toward Heritage Foundation director Edwin J. Feulner. "It's a Heritage Foundation tie."

Allen couldn't keep up.

"Mine says Joseph A. Bank," he admitted.

Allen was one of the hosts at the reception at the Dallas World Trade Center, which is not quite as large as the one in New York, but which served just fine. More than 1,200 guests milled around and listened to Lionel Hampton at the party for the International Republican Cooperation Fund, a privately funded organization of what Allen called "like-minded" political parties around the world.

Like-minded, for those who weren't sure, means conservative.

So there were foreign accents around the hall and even talk of international socialism, but also some more familiar accents and subjects, like that of Diana Denman. The vice chair of the Texas Republican Party, Denman ventured into metaphor to explain why Texas is so well suited to the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan.

"Texans are traditional people," she said, "with strong roots, and we believe in the basic values that built America. We're strong. This good old West Texas soil, it's dry, but the grass is very, very strong, and the cattle raised here are the best in the world. It's the strength in the soil." Words From the Women

At the Dallas Convention Center this afternoon, where the "Women in Government" press party was held, Republican women leaders spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of the Reagan administration and tried to ignore the gender gap.

"More women in America support Ronald Reagan and George Bush than Mondale and Ferraro," said Republican National Committee cochairman Betty Heitman. But what she didn't say is that fewer women than men -- by as much as 10 percentage points -- support Reagan.

Heitman and Betty Rendel, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, were hosts for the get-together, where a dozen or so women running for office introduced themselves to the reporters and praised the Republican Party for giving them full support. Some, including Rendel, showed some disappointment that support of the Equal Rights Amendment was roundly defeated by the Republican platform committee, but even those who felt as she did added that they were convinced that it was not an issue that was "going to win any election."

Rendel thought that criticism of the ERA by Republican women "has a lot to do with war and women at the front. That's a very critical issue."

Reporters pushed the women for comments on Geraldine Ferraro and the ensuing flap over her husband's business affairs. The party line seemed to be to say they were excited as women by her nomination, followed by an espousal of how Republican women are different, more conservative, and ending with the observation that Ferraro is in trouble.

"Ferraro is doomed at this point," said Rendel. "I was excited at her nomination. It was a real breakthrough. But she's the seventh most liberal person in Congress. I don't think that's the mood of the country." Red, White and Beige

"What you will really see is an earth-tone podium," explained Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Republican National Committee chairman, who had just seen the 1984 GOP convention podium and decided it was "glorious."

But an earth-tone podium for a Republican convention? Somehow it almost sounded un-American.

"I think earth tones present a little warmer image than all that red, white and blue," Fahrenkopf continued between handshakes at a party for him Saturday night. "There will still be red chairs and blue carpet, but on television red, white and blue tend to take the attention away from people on the podium. So we thought we'd try this."

There was nothing down to earth, however, about Gulf Oil's party at the luxurious Mansion on Turtle Creek, owned by one of the world's richest women, Caroline Hunt Schoellkopf. In the receiving line with Fahrenkopf and his wife, Mary, was Gulf's chairman and chief executive officer James Lee.

Through it came Texas Sen. John Tower, Florida Sen. Paula Hawkins, Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, Dallas multimillionaire developer and Dallas Convention Fund chairman Trammell Crow, National Federation of Republican Women president Betty Rendel, Reagan-Bush '84 campaign director Ed Rollins, former White House aide Joe Canzeri and 400 other party stalwarts.

Unworried and unruffled by the GOP platform committee's conservative successes, both Fahrenkopf and Rollins maintained there is maneuvering room for Reagan positions.

Rumors that some of the party's moderates and liberals might consider bolting the party were laughed down by Fahrenkopf. "Who left?" he asked, looking around the room bursting at the seams. Mainstream at the Mart

There are some parties that have a very good sense of their purpose. Take the massive gathering at Dallas' Apparel Mart on Saturday night. Sponsored by the Mart and by Braniff airlines, Du Pont and the Dallas Times Herald, the party gave its more than 6,000 guests a whole lot of food and a whole lot of stuff to look at.

Reporters, delegates, Dallasites and apparel industry insiders moved with grim determination from one restaurant booth to another, trying out the fancy ice cream, the fried dumplings, the seafood and the spreads and the crepes in no particular order. Then they all rolled their way into a fashion show, which was followed by an appearance by the Beach Boys.

It was exhausting.

"What is it?" asked Iowa delegate alternate Barry Jackson, staring suspiciously at some sushi. "We don't have anything like that in Iowa."

Jackson is chairman of the Iowa City Ripon Society, a moderate Republican group, and he allies himself with Iowa Rep. Jim Leach, a founder of the moderate Republican Mainstream Committee. Wandering amid the thousands of people who probably didn't much like the word "moderate," Jackson was eager to talk.

"Democrats won't accept us because we're Republicans," he said. "Republicans don't want us because we're mainstream. But you know you're right, you're in touch with what America feels."

His moderate friend, Maryann Ivie, agreed. "You're going to get a lot of mainstream people who talk about the beginning of the Republican Party and what federalism is all about," she said. "But if the alternative is big government, we would just as soon be Republicans."

A woman all aglitter in beaded gold silk looked at Ivie in shock. It wasn't the kind of talk you're supposed to hear around Dallas these days.

The Beach Boys were also talking about politics, and how they wished no one would bring it up.

"Don't let them make this political," Beach Boys manager Tom Hulett whispered to an aide, after he stood in front of a TV camera and said the same thing. "Hopefully, we'll be playing the Washington Mall with a Democratic administration, too."

The Boys, as Hulett called them, were there at the request of some Braniff friends, he said, and it had nothing to do with the Republicans.

Yes, he said, the Boys are often seen as somewhat conservative, but he preferred the word clean. "I agree with the clean spirit of the country now," he said.

The several thousand people waiting for the Beach Boys seemed to agree. They probably don't have anything like this back home. Sushi Substitute

Jim Collins, the former congressman from Texas, had a barbecue for foreign visitors at his family farm Saturday night, and here's what some Japanese visitors said about the food: "If we Japanese ate barbecue like this every day," said Tetsuo Kondo, a member of Japan's house of representatives, "we'd be bigger." The Kemp Allure

It's probably a safe bet that Rep. Jack Kemp, who shaped the GOP's conservative platform, is going to run for president in 1988. At least it looked that way at a party he gave today at the Anatole Hotel honoring Florida Sen. Paula Hawkins and Mississippi Rep. Trent Lott. The grand ballroom was so mobbed you could hardly squeeze past the doors.

Bee Sinram, 50, a delegate from Atlanta, was waiting patiently in a crush of admirers for a glimpse of Kemp. What did she like about him?

"God, everything," she said. "He's conservative and his tax bill is right on."

"Besides the fact," said her daughter Cheryl Sinram, 27, "that he's absolutely gorgeous."