Geraldine Ferraro's mother, Antonetta, is talking in indignant tones about "the Bushes" somewhat as if they were next-door neighbors with whom she'd had a run-in. "I would never stoop to what he did. Never, never! And Mrs. Bush! I thought it was terrible. I would not put myself in her category. So she apologized," says Mrs. Ferraro, her tone suggesting a shrug before she spits out: "Empty words."

For a week, Antonetta's daughter, who credits her mother for most of her success in life, was asked everywhere for reaction to the collection of put-downs emanating from the camp of Vice President Bush -- "it rhymes with rich" from Barbara Bush, the straight-forward "bitchy" from press secretary Peter Teeley and finally "We tried to kick a little ass" from the vice president himself.

Ferraro refused to be drawn into it. "I don't name-call." Then she invoked her mother's teachings: "I couldn't get away with that kind of stuff when I was a kid and I'm not about to start now." Locker Room Politics

There has always been a locker room quality to politics and it sometimes spills over into headlines, as in l980 when Jimmy Carter said of Ted Kennedy, "I'm going to whip his ass." Bush argues his comment was merely an "old Texas football expression." The controversy could be dismissed as just the caterwauling that erupts in hardball politics. But in the context of a week of disparaging comments against Ferraro, it hardly seems coincidental. It seems, rather, a pattern, a calculated appeal to the "macho gap" and sexism that is alive and well in l984. "They're not dumb," says Ferraro's press aide, Francis O'Brien. "They know what they're doing."

Meanwhile, the Ferraro camp is sending out its salvos. Sitting in the front of her plane, nursing a cold, Ferraro says she feels there is certain sexism -- but something more. "I think that 'bitchy' stuff may be more than just the issue of being a woman. It's a piece of it, but not the whole thing. If you just look at the whole context of each of those remarks, maybe they're thinking, 'Who is she to have the temerity to challenge George Bush?' "

On a 2 a.m. plane ride from Iowa to New York, her aides carried on the fight. The plane resembled a flying "Animal House" as cameramen dumped Iowa-grown popcorn on each other and turned the aisles into a disco with Motown tapes.

Aides joined in the levity but there was a purposeful undercurrent; they're floating the impression that the patrician Bushes are attacking the working-class Ferraros, hoping to raise sympathy and votes from blue-collar workers and ethnics who had shifted to Reagan: brie vs. manicotti, Mayflower vs. immigrant. It got to be so obvious that reporters joked with aides about their "humble origins" shtick.

"Not only am I the first woman. It's the first Italian American. I think the ethnic thing is very strong," insists Ferraro. "Peter Rodino was pointing out to me that when he was doing the Watergate stuff, the stories that went on about him were just incredible. When Ben Civiletti became attorney general we were so thrilled! That was 'Italian American at long last!' " Male versus Female

Still, the abiding obstacle remains the male perception of Ferraro, who consistently scores far less well with men than women in polls. The first woman to run as a major party vice-presidential candidate, Ferraro has been called a female Jackie Robinson. "As the first black, Robinson was subjected to more scrutiny, pressure and abuse," says Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee. Being the first woman is a "double-edged sword," says Ferraro. Unlike Bush, she draws the curious and the committed, the crowds generally at least half female, who roar when she emphasizes her historic role. But her sex also causes controversy and reactions that range from mildy derisive to vituperative.

"It is everywhere," says O'Brien. "Not yet resolved is this macho thing. You see it in the use of language. The TV analysts who judged her debate were all men and they describe politics in subconscious or conscious male terms -- horse race, knockout punches." A New York Times editorial said she showed "becoming" strength -- a phrase inconceivable for a male participant. When she takes on the president -- the traditional slugging role of a vice-presidential candidate -- she is criticized as being harsh and too tough for a woman.

An observer notices trivial signs of the times: When Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) introduced her at a breakfast, innocently saying of the debate that "her close" was inspiring, giggles filled the room. "Her closing," he added, to more laughs. "I think she dresses well, too," he finished. Ferraro's eyes, watering from a cold, registered a vice-presidential candidate first: smudged mascara. During an impromptu press interview in a plane aisle, a boom mike kept hitting her in the breast. Moving it away, she joked, "Some of us are different." She is the mother who wonders, in a flu-ridden world, why on earth mothers would hand their babies over to politicians to be kissed.

When she tackles "pro-lifers" she is the first major candidate able to say, "I would not have an abortion." Far more than Mondale, she is dogged by the loud drumbeat of hecklers interrupting speech after speech with shouts of, "What about the unborn?" She feels it is because she is female as well as Catholic.

Differing male versus female perceptions sometimes extend to reporters. During the debate she was asked by a male how she could convince people that she could protect U.S. security. Ferraro's reply -- "Are you saying I would have to have fought in a war in order to love peace?" -- struck some male reporters as accusatory and strident; many female reporters felt she was making an explicit point of identification to 52 percent of the voting population -- women who have not fought in a war.

"That's absolutely right," says Ferraro, riding in a car between speeches, occasionally waving to people who line the streets. "You know why I did that? You saw that stuff coming out that Bush was in military service and in combat. I wanted to make the point that you don't have to be -- and the only way to do that was by turning that into a rhetorical question. It was done deliberately." She shakes her head. "Some men don't understand."

She is told that some Bush supporters felt she missed a chance to point to a leader like Margaret Thatcher. She interrupts, "Oh no, no. I deliberately did not. Because I know who I am -- and she's very, very conservative in so many ways. She is another person who will move first with military might." Her green eyes widen. "I mean! Did they think I didn't know Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher? There are certain things you do or don't do -- deliberately. I rarely do things without thinking them through."

For Ferarro, who has the ability to touch chords in crowds of thousands, the debate was not her finest 90 minutes; her voice was flat, she looked down, gave vague foreign policy answers. But she scored decisively when she took on Bush as "patronizing." That, too, was planned. Her opportunity came when Bush said, "Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon." The 50 million watching on TV did not see her reaction as he was speaking. With perfect timing she looked out at her side of the audience -- there was, more or less, a division somewhat like the church wedding "bride" and "groom" sides of the aisle. Her expression was the classic "can you believe him?" roll of the eyes, before she blasted back, "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy."

Ferraro insists her performance accomplished what she set out to do. "I said, 'How am I getting this terrible disapproval rating?' And we figured it out. They saw this woman on TV, blasting a man whom they liked. That's why I set out our positive programs, what Fritz would do. I was not debating Bush. Do you know who I wanted to satisfy? Myself and the American public. I wanted them to get to know Geraldine Ferraro," instead of the l5-second "sassy dame" quotes of nightly news. The result was that Ferraro tamped herself down to a dull monotone -- leaving the shrillness to her arm-waving opponent who sounded at times like a speeded-up tape of comedian Paul Lynde.

Bush did better during the foreign policy segment, but polls immediately after the debate revealed a fascinating gender gap; women were evenly divided, or thought it was a draw, while men weighed in with a decisive victory for Bush. Still, her approval rating has been steadily rising, jumping 10 percentage points in a matter of weeks -- 4 percent after both debates. Performance and Crowds

In Madison, Wis., on a misty gray morning, they stream in, 30,000 strong, to cheer Mondale and Ferraro, who are far-off faces on the capitol steps. They pack gymnasiums in Hinsdale, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa, with amplifiers carrying her voice to the overflow crowd. Women wait to clutch her hand as she threads through long lines. Ferraro's singular disappointment of the campaign is that "polls are not reflecting the enthusiasm that is out there."

Jesse Jackson and Ferraro tapped something tangible across the country this year as they spoke to two groups long disenfranchised in national politics -- blacks and women. While Jackson was the outsider, and Ferraro is a political insider -- an ambitious three-term member of Congress who is seen as "one of the boys" -- both strike deep responses in their respective constituencies.

While polls show that young women support her by far wider margins than men their age, her audiences are also filled with men, young and old, who rave about her. In a Hinsdale, Ill., gym an elderly man cheered and beamed, although his hearing aid couldn't catch all the conversation. "She has guts," he said. David Rowe, a young corporate management consultant, said, "I'd vote for her -- if she weren't running with Mondale."

Not the men the pollsters find, they lead chants of "Give 'em hell, Gerry!" and roar their approval when she takes on Reagan's foreign policy. Ideological lines are clearly drawn this year and there are two nations out there: the one that cheers on Ferraro's pitch for Democratic "values," the other that warms to Reagan's view of America. "Above all," she tells them, "this fight concerns the fate of the earth. This president opposed every modern arms control agreement ever negotiated. Walter Mondale has fought for arms control as long as Ronald Reagan has opposed it!"

On a tape recorder, replayed applause sound like huge waves crashing on rocks. "Two months ago, while testing a radio broadcast, he said he would sign a regulation -- and I quote -- that 'outlaws Russia.' He added that the 'bombing begins in five minutes.' " In scathing tones she adds, "He said it was a joke. The American people shuddered and our European allies were shocked. Now the Pentagon has confirmed that, in response, the Soviet Union went into a partial military alert. That is no joke! Our president's reckless comments jeopardized our safety. We cannot afford a president who forgets he is president, even for a minute!"

But it is as a woman, speaking to women, that she ignites. "This candidacy is not just a symbol, it's a breakthrough. It's not just a statement, it's a BOND BETWEEN WOMEN ALL OVER AMERICA!" The words are drowned in claps, whistles, cheers. To be sure, there is campaign hyperbole here. The women holding the antiabortion signs, older women who feel threatened by her, the anti-ERA, Moral Majority and Republican women -- they are not in her ranks.

Still, her crowds seem increasingly to be the committed, rather than the curious. The cheers build to a crescendo when she shouts, "When I take my oath of office as the FIRST FEMALE VICE PRESIDENT IN AMERICAN HISTORY we can all thank Walter Mondale!" And, "When I take the oath of office for my second term I want to uphold a Constitution that includes the Equal Rights Amendment!" As she repeats this across the country, there are standing ovations.

At times her voice can be flat, nasal and grating -- yet it can also stir deep emotions as she anguishes over peace or wrests away such Moral Majority phrases as "pro-family" and gives them new meaning. Reagan, she says, "would have us think he is the candidate of family values. But a president that has caused so much hardship to families cannot lay claim to that principle. When you slash child nutrition, day care funds and special assistance for handicapped children, that doesn't help families . . . a president who slashes aid to college education cannot claim to understand a parents' dream for their children's future."

There are some politicians -- Nixon comes quickest to mind -- who remain stiff and awkward no matter how many years of public performance. Ferraro, who spoke primarily to Queens before the Democratic convention, has a natural rapport -- especially with middle American Democrats who identify with her background and like her no-nonsense bluntness. She has learned to slow her Gatling gun speech, to wait for applause. Most striking is an aura of complete self-confidence. No wasted motions. No artifice. It is impossible to imagine her turning coy or batting her eyelashes. Her face can grow thin-lipped stern when it is not lit with her strong smile, but she is almost always photogenic. O'Brien, a sometime movie producer ("Gallipoli"), says, "There is a Hollywood expression, 'The camera is in love with her.' "

Ferraro is also a ham who has developed well-timed pauses, although some of her colloquialisms can sound jarringly non-statesmanlike and fall flat, as when she said that she and Mondale had both won their debates and would win in November -- "three out of three ain't bad." On Reagan's performance, she drips sarcasm that has her audiences laughing halfway through. "Senator Laxalt said the president was -- and I quote -- 'brutalized' by a briefing process that smothered him with facts.' " She lets that lie there. "Now I ask you." It sounds like Joan Rivers. The audience roars. "Since when is it considered cruel and unusual punishment to expect a president to learn a few facts he needs in order to lead?!"

Her crowds are often pure participation theater. At a Polish American rally someone shouts, "You tell 'em, gumbari" -- Italian for buddy or friend -- and she laughs along with the crowd. "Name the last time the president took a chance for social justice!" she shouts, and the crowd roars back, "NEVER!"

Women in the crowd are often working-class who do not think of themselves as feminists -- from Pennsylvania mothers who speak with tears in their eyes about raising their children near toxic waste dumps to Iowa farm wives who feel the pinch of unusually hard times. As if in defiance of the polls, they are old as well as young.

Ruth Johnson, a middle-aged woman, stands in the mob in Madison. "Ferraro's the one motivating me." Lisa Ferin nodded, and revealed resentments long hidden by many women, "I loved it when she told him, 'Don't you patronize me.' "

Outside a Hinsdale gym, three young women:

"She's fantastic," says Anita Phipps, cracking her gum. "I've had some men say she's not qualified," says Phipps, a customer service manager for a telecommunications company, "but they hire women and don't pay them as well as the men." They all talk at once: "Hey, where I work, they hired a guy with less responsibility for $2,000 more after I'd been there five years. I complained -- but it didn't do a whole lot of good." "My dad never let my mother work. I got married, I got a job. And my husband loves her. Some say Ferraro's tough. Well, she has to be tough -- she's a woman."

The older women have a special poignancy. A 73-year-old Polish American grandmother of eight, Stasia Pietrowiak, said, "We women now have our chance. Geraldine has shown us the guts to do it. If Thatcher can do it, we Americans can stand it." Mother and Daughter

"So what's a feminist?" asks Antonetta Ferraro. "I don't know what I am. I'm what my daughter is. I'm with her all the way."

It is so easy to see that Geraldine Ferraro is her mother's daughter. The same cadence. The same directness. The same humor. When asked her age she borrows from Reagan, "There you go again! Just say I'm in my seventies."

Theirs is a fiercely symbiotic relationship, born of many sorrows. First Antonetta had twins and one died. "He was only three days old but I felt it." Along came another son. He was 3 years old when one day on a drive, the adoring mother put him up front with her in the passenger's seat. They were in a car accident. "My Gerard died. Maybe if he'd been in back he would have lived." Antonetta became a woman possessed by grief. She buried his toys with Gerard. "I used to wash his clothes and polish his shoes every day. I didn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't work." She resisted when a doctor suggested she have another child: "I am not going to have children for the cemetery." Then her daughter was born and she named her as close to Gerard as possible -- Geraldine. Her mother says, simply, "She saved my life."

Geraldine was the "Princess," doted on by both parents. Her privileged life ended when Geraldine was 8. Her father died and her mother went to work in the garment district, crocheting beads on fancy dresses. Although there was the surviving twin, Carl, six years older, he is a shadowy figure in their conversations. He was a teenager who soon left home and was in the service. Mother and daughter talk as if they are everything to each other. Says Antonetta, "She is my friend, my mother, my father, my husband, my everything. I wish every daughter in the world would love her mother like she does. I have a friend in the apartment here, her daughter is a doctor and she read what my daughter did for me. And her mother said, 'See what Mrs. Ferraro gets from her daughter?' Well, she used to call her mother once a month. Now she calls twice a week.

"I gave my most precious posession, my daughter, to the United States and the world."

Geraldine Ferraro says much of what she has accomplished is to pay back her mother. Her mother scrimped to send her to Marymount boarding school in Tarrytown. "I came home one day and my aunt told me my mother had not eaten meat. It was not a time when people used to worry about cholesterol. She wasn't eating meat because she couldn't afford it. She was giving up a lot of things, including food, for me." Ferraro graduated with honors and had a scholarship to Marymount College in Tarrytown. "But I missed her so much I had them transfer my scholarship to Marymount in Manhattan. I got a job. And I stayed home. The two of us.

"I wanted to have as much as a lot of the people who went to school with me. And I knew I wasn't going to get it unless I worked hard," says Ferraro, who with her husband is worth an estimated $4 million. "I was very grateful my mother had done the things she did. That's why I kept my maiden name. Because I really wanted to say thank you."

Ferraro's position on issues is often instinctive and shaped, in part, because she is a mother. She was deeply upset that some Brown University students asked for a referendum to stock the school with suicide pills in case of a nuclear attack. Even though it was a ploy to dramatize the nuclear freeze, it bothered her that today's youth should live with such fear. She argued with aides about speaking out on this until one suggested that it could be construed that she was accusing Reagan's policies of causing children to commit suicide.

Ferraro is not an intellectual, and has the limitations of a third-term House member responsible to a limited constituency, but she is street-smart, a quick read and seeks advice from experts. "I'm not the least bit shy about saying, 'Tell me, I don't know it.' "

Shy is not an adjective for Ferraro, nor is tentative. She withers a reporter: "You haven't been listening." And her tart humor can be directed at her staff. One press conference went on too long for her taste. O'Brien, standing nearby, finally said, "This is the last question." She darted him a look and said, to much laughter, "I thought you were sleeping over there."

But she is tough, rather than hard, and there is a warmth behind the ambition. Quickly empathetic with a female reporter whose child was having trouble in school, she departs from issues to talk mother-to-mother. "Now let me tell you what we did with John. He was at Choate, playing sports and he learned how to disco and had six or seven girlfriends, and we took him out because he almost flunked every subject." Taking a summer school algebra course, he asked his mother what would happen if he failed. "And I said, 'John.' " The period is in her voice, as definite as in her "Let me tell ya's." "Your father and I will kill you." As she laughs, she adds drily, "It's probably not the best motivation in the world." He passed but still felt insecure. "They get so depressed," she says of teen-agers. "Just tell 'em you love them all the time. He did well the whole second year but he kept saying, 'I'm stupid, I can't do it,' and there were John and I with our arms around him, saying constantly, 'You can do it.' Let me tell you, this kid got a 95, got A's and B's his senior year and was president of his class."

Because her voice can slur into mush on tape, Ferraro now holds a reporter's recorder (as well as the campaign recorder) inches from her mouth. In spite of this, the conversation is natural. One major campaign blunder was blurting out that her husband would not reveal his taxes after she'd said he would, thus making the subject an issue. "You know," she says today, "this has been a very tough time for us. We've always had a very close relationship. He's been a part of my life, but now it's a lot of time spent talking about how things are going for him personally, because he's being hit so much. It's almost a daily thing."

She gazes out the airplane window. "I worry about him. He's not sleeping. He's never been in the middle of something like this in his entire life."

She talked wearily of the innuendos of mob connections surrounding John Zaccaro's real estate holdings. "But it's not true. It's small businessmen. They don't have contracts; it's a lot of shaking hands, that sort of thing. It's not like running a major corporation."

She says, "We have been hit so hard personally, that's the worst of it. It does not detract from my ability to campaign, obviously. I can worry, but I have the ability to turn it off and do what I have to. I may not sleep too well. But that's mine. If I didn't have this personal stuff. If my husband didn't have this personal stuff . . ." The shrug indicates it would be a piece of cake.

Despite the polls, Ferraro insists everywhere that they are going to win. When pressed privately, she says, "Can we do it? As opposed to will we do it. Yes. Even if I were convinced that it were not possible, there is no way I would not get up and fight as hard as I can because I'm fighting hard for the things I believe in."

As for Ferraro's future, if she doesn't win will she run for the Senate in 1986 against Alfonse D'Amato? "I've got two years." What about the presidency in 1988? "Who knows?"

Her mother would say it's moot. "I tell you she's going to win." Antonetta Ferraro says she needs some dresses made for the Inaugural. "The polls? They don't mean a thing. Let me tell you, I don't believe in polls. They call who they call. They never call me or any of my friends. You remember Truman? He went to sleep and Dewey won. He woke up and he had won."

When her daughter wins "and George Bush is out -- that's when I'm going to write him a letter!"