Monday afternoon in Little Rock.

The arriving Delta Air Lines passengers scatter before the cameras. Soon a shaggy, blond, grinning head bobs into view. A flourish of hot-pink fingernails, the glint of a shiny button -- "MY DAD FOR PRESIDENT" -- and Eleanor Mondale, 24, strides purposefully into the television lights.

"I've been wanting to come here through the whole campaign," she tells the assembled media, who have thrust three microphones and two notebooks under her chin. "It's sort of a special place for me. Arkansas is a great state, you can't deny that."

Then Walter Mondale's daughter and her entourage of campaign workers clamber out of the gate area and into an airport holding room for five minutes with Little Rock's ABC affiliate. That interview done, she shoulders her bags to a waiting car and heads for the rain-swept city, where she must forge her way through five more interviews, a courtesy call on a newspaper publisher and three pep talks to groups of Mondale supporters -- all before dinner.

"These times are very difficult emotionally," she says in the car between events, shaking the shag out of her eyes to fix her questioner with a lingering gaze. "I mean, physically they're draining, too, but anyone can deal with that. I couldn't do this if I didn't want to. I wouldn't do it if I didn't want to . . . You know we are all doing this because it's for our parents."

Considering the number of candidates' kids careening around the country, this campaign could well be called a children's crusade. Three Mondales, three Zaccaros, a Reagan and a Bush have all been in the thick of it, aiding their parents' fight to win -- or keep -- gainful employment. In most cases they've exchanged life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the privilege of going without sleep and decent food.

"I think it's wonderful," says John Zaccaro Jr., Geraldine Ferraro's 20-year-old son, when asked how it feels to have campaign schedulers run his life. "I'm going to get them to do this all the time. Get them to schedule my classes at Middlebury College and tell me when I can go out and play soccer and when I can lounge and snooze. It makes life so much easier. It's like being on cruise control."

Eleanor Mondale and her two brothers -- Ted, 27, and William, 22 -- have been logging 18-hour days on behalf of their father since the primaries. John Zaccaro Jr., his sisters Donna, 22, and Laura, 18, have been doing the same since the end of the summer for their mother. Maureen Reagan, 43, has been stumping for the president, and John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, 31, has been campaigning for the ticket on which his father is No. 2.

"You should never do it because you feel obligated to, because then you're not going to enjoy it and you lose the whole objective of a family surrogate," says Jeb Bush, the second of five children and the only one making regular appearances this fall. "A family surrogate has to project in a way that somehow makes people listen to this person and get some idea of their parent."

Ted Mondale, a veteran of three national campaigns, including this one, goes a step further. "I think a lot of people look at the son or daughter of a candidate, and that's the closest they're ever going to get to the candidate," he says. "And they end up judging the candidate on the basis of that son or daughter."

Eleanor Mondale has the presence of an actress, probably because she is one. "I've done 'Three's Company,' 'Emerald Point,' I even played a reporter on 'Matt Houston,' " she says, beaming straight into the cameras at Little Rock Municipal Airport. "My ball is rolling as far as my personal career goes, but I felt this is more important right now."

She brings to these encounters a performer's sheer joy in giving a performance, and a natural's sense of timing. A reporter for the Arkansas Gazette asks earnestly, "What are conversations around the dinner table like -- is it politics?" And Mondale replies, with equal earnestness, "There's a lot of food-throwing."

During a live radio interview the host says, "You are very tall."

"I'm 5-foot-9," she answers.

"And you have your dad's eyes. You look a lot like your dad. I see a little of Mom and a little of Dad."

"Yes," she agrees emphatically. "The left side is Mom. The right side is Dad."

When an interviewer starts to suggest that the public opinion polls look bad, she lets out a half-growl, half-whoop, leaps at the stunned scribe and shakes him vigorously. Later, as she watches one of her performances on the local news, her blue eyes pounce on the image and never let go.

"I don't think acting prepares you for politics in any way. Or to be president," she insists. "Acting is pretend, make-believe, illusion. And politics -- and I'm speaking for the Mondale campaign -- is hard facts, reality and looking at the future."

She has come to Arkansas, "The Land of Opportunity," a swing state that went narrowly for Reagan in 1980, to speak to schoolteachers, party workers and campaign volunteers. It's the day after the foreign policy debate in Kansas City, and Mondale sounds like Geraldine Ferraro as she prompts members of the Arkansas Education Association with, "Did we win that debate last night or what?"

The 30-odd teachers in the room whistle and applaud.

"We have a president right now," she continues, standing beside the punch and cookies, "who happens to feel that excellence in education means sending a teacher into space." Laughter. Someone proffers a big, bright button and she sticks it in her lapel.

She pauses from working the room to give another TV interview. "Okay, everybody, form a crowd," she shouts, and the educators obediently assemble behind her.

"She's great," says teacher's aide Leola Scoggins as the interview proceeds, "because we know that her father is great, and she being the daughter of Mondale, she must be great, too."

Eleanor Mondale's new button reads, "NO MO'RON FOR PRESIDENT."

"Ronald Reagan has a very clear message," she tells some 50 volunteers at Mondale-Ferraro headquarters. " 'He didn't do it, he didn't know it and he didn't say it.' 'He didn't do it' -- he didn't send the Marines to Lebanon. 'He didn't know it' -- he didn't know about the CIA booklet to instruct these rebels how to assassinate not only their opposition but some of their own people to create martyrs. And 'he didn't say it' -- he didn't say that missiles could be recalled once they were launched from submarines. So he left us with his message and finished it off with a scenic drive down the Pacific Coast Highway."

More laughter, more applause.

"Once you do a job long enough," Mondale says later, "it becomes almost second nature. Most of the things you have to learn on your own, but we did get together with the Zaccaro kids at the beginning, when nobody ever did that for us. And the main thing we stressed to them was 'be yourself.' And that this is a temporary situation. Do not get yourself wrapped up in self-importance, or in your parents' position or career."

And if Walter Mondale loses?

"Personally, I'll be all right. My family will be okay. My Dad will be the same. But as an American citizen, I'm going to be very disappointed and terribly afraid about what is going to happen to this country."

Tuesday night in Miami.

Jeb Bush, 6-foot-4, in a pin-stripe suit, is squaring off against Annie Ackerman, a short, stout grandmother in a fuzzy white hat. There's hardly a free seat at Temple Israel.

"Now there's a perfect example of youth and inexperience," says Ackerman, 70, scowling at George Bush's son.

"You can hiss and boo if you like," says her baby-faced adversary, playing to the crowd, "but I'm tempted to say that I feel somewhat patronized by Mrs. Ackerman."

And so Jeb Bush defends the Reagan-Bush team against yet another local Democrat. He takes to the challenge like an eager young bear.

In the previous week he's done two other debates -- one at a high school, another over a Cuban American radio station (conducted in Spanish, a language he often uses with his Mexican wife, Columba, and their three children). He has also delivered the keynote address to a Chamber of Commerce banquet, appeared at a rally at the University of Miami, taped a half-hour local television commercial and, as chairman of the Dade County Republican Party, raised money from various business types. All this while serving as president of IntrAmerica, a real estate investment management firm.

"I spend too much of my time in politics," says Bush, who tries to limit his appearances to Miami. "I've got business responsibilities that I have to fulfill. And then there's my family -- there's so much pressure."

The "bad-breath county chairman," as he calls himself, lights up one of many cigarettes he will smoke throughout the evening. He says he resumed the habit, after quitting for nine months, when he ran for chairman against token opposition last April.

"I was nervous," Bush says. "It would have been embarrassing if I'd lost, let's put it that way. It would have sent out the wrong signal to the rest of the world. It's very hard for people to assume that I could do something on my own and earn my own way in life. So I've had to earn the respect of some of the longtime pols down here. I think it's gone all right, I don't know."

By most accounts, it has. "It's a party that has historically been beset by strife and internal dissension," says his Democratic counterpart, Richard Pettigrew. "He seems to have put it back together pretty well."

Bush got his education in "retail politics" -- his term -- when his father ran for president in 1980. He helped organize Iowa -- where George Bush ambushed Ronald Reagan in the caucuses -- but wasn't involved in his father's crushing New Hampshire primary defeat. He toiled for the ticket in the general election, in which his language skills made him something of a secret weapon with Hispanic voters.

"I got more out of that campaign than I gave," he says. "If I ever was reserved, I overcame that problem pretty quick. When you get thrown to the wolves like that, you gain a level of self-confidence. It wasn't fun. It was stimulating, invigorating. Fun is being with my 10-month-old baby. Or seeing my wife once in a while. Or watching a good movie. Or breaking out in a sweat exercising. That's fun."

The toughest thing for Bush has been developing a thick skin. "It's possible to a degree, but not in its totality, if you have any feelings for your parents," he says. He defends his mother's now-famous comment about Geraldine Ferraro as "showing the whole concept of standing by her man. Keep in mind that she said it the day after Walter Mondale impugned the integrity of my father on national TV in front of 100 million people by saying Vice President Bush was taxed at a lower rate than his janitor or chauffeur . That was absolutely out of line. He was so far off base."

In any case, he says, such barbs are "totally irrelevant to the campaign. In my mother's case, she was dealing with a reporter as a human being. It's hard to remember that you're supposed to treat the press, not like humans, but like 'press' -- like some breed of animal. Because that's the way, unfortunately, that you all behave sometimes."

At Temple Israel, debating in front of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, Bush is the soul of good sportsmanship as he rises to tell the crowd how Ronald Reagan "has allowed the entrepreneurial spirit to elevate itself," how "inflation is the cruelest tax of all" and how "the most the most repressive regime in Latin America, outside of Cuba, is Nicaragua."

Ackerman, head of the North Dade Democratic Club, is a joyous brawler by contrast, her stout arms sawing the air as she administers what she clearly hopes will be the tongue-lashing of young Jeb's life.

"CIA pamphlets in Nicaragua?" she shouts into her hand-mike. "This is how you help democracies in Latin America? This is a foreign policy?" She smiles indulgently. "Jeb Bush could be my grandson. And my grandson doesn't know any more than he does."

Two elderly women in front murmur agreement. Jeb rolls his eyes. The fray quickly descends into church-and-state, anti-Semitism and Jerry Falwell.

"She talks about Jerry Falwell more than I talk about Jimmy Carter," Bush complains to the crowd. "Name me one person that Reverend Falwell has put into government. I'll name you people that Reverend Falwell hasn't put into government . . . I would be much more concerned about the anti-Semitic Jesse Jackson and his influence over the Democratic nominee."

He throws up his hands -- a referee calling a foul -- when the heretofore impartial moderator, former Florida legislator Elaine Bloom, lectures him on the evils of prayer in public school. "Great, two against one," he mutters. "What is this? Barbara Walters?"

"He's a nice boy," Annie Ackerman says later. "He looks so clean-scrubbed and wholesome."

Asked who won, Bush smiles broadly. "Oh, I think she kicked -- " He pauses. And leaves it right there.

Wednesday afternoon in Niagara Falls.

Between a senior citizens center and a Democratic luncheon in upstate New York, on a day that began with a talk show in Buffalo and will end at a fundraiser in Ontario County, John Zaccaro Jr. pauses to visit the thundering falls.

"Let's see how far I can punt that bird," says Zaccaro, a college soccer halfback, chasing a seagull toward the rising mist. He abandons the effort to buy a box of popcorn, which he shares with two campaign workers and a mob of starlings.

The respite is brief. When the group returns to the parking lot, they find a tourist standing by their car, staring pensively at the Mondale-Ferraro bumper sticker. "I was almost going to put a good bumper sticker on your car," the man says.

"Sir," says Geraldine Ferarro's son, dressed like a lawyer and swaggering like a jock, "if we wanted to put a good one on there, we'd put another Mondale-Ferraro one on there. Because that's a good one, you see what I mean? Maybe you'd like a button, sir."

The man mumbles something and retreats.

"You have a nice day, sir," Zaccaro says with a sly smile. It's one of the few moments when he has acted his age.

Although barely past his teens, most of the time John Zaccaro Jr. is as cool as kryptonite and just about as crackable. Fielding reporters' questions about the Ferraro-Zaccaro finances, or trying to soothe several union men worried about the Mondale tax plan, he projects the same no-problem aura as his father, John Sr.

"The religion issue is nothing new," he tells a reporter in Niagara Falls -- a bit bored with the subject, perhaps, but still good-natured about it. "My mother stated her position on abortion when she ran for Congress. She talked with the people in her church and she's a good Catholic . . . The financial issue was something that showed the uneasiness of the press with how to deal with the first woman candidate and the first male spouse."

The years of toiling on his mother's congressional races, collaring voters in the New York subway, are serving John Jr. well on his first national campaign. His speeches, delivered in a low voice, are lawyerly. His answers are unfailingly polite.

And the dark-eyed Zaccaro can boast other strengths. At one point during a visit to a college in Geneseo, he is surrounded by eight admirers -- all female. "It's hard for me to think of my brother as a stud, but I guess he is," giggles his sister Laura.

At the fundraiser that night in Ontario County, he expertly works a crowd of mostly middle-aged Democrats at the Town Pump restaurant, passing between the tables to pose for pictures and chat. "What can I say about a kid like that?" says one of them, Marty Burns. "I'd like my daughter to bring him home."

"You know, when you talk about dos and don'ts, we don't do any don'ts," Zaccaro says of himself and his sisters. "We're good kids. We're ourselves. We've been raised well. So we don't get into trouble . . . I've learned that I can work a lot harder, and put up with a lot more, if I enjoy what I'm doing and there's a good cause behind it. I've learned that my parents are good people. Our family has gotten closer together. Sometimes, the only people you can trust is family."

He has been stung by stories trying to link various relatives to members of organized crime, and occasionally regales his audiences with a quote from New York Gov. Mario Cuomo: "When the people get tired of reading the truth, they read The New York Post."

In the car between stops, he talks about the bad publicity. His air of cool evaporates. "They are spending a tremendous amount of money trying to smear the Zaccaro family . . . It's upsetting when people say that my grandmother and her husband were tied to a numbers racket, because that's not true. They are some of the saintly people of this world . . ."

He fidgets with a magnetized St. Christopher medal clinging to the dashboard. "My father is a great man and he loves his wife. He made tremendous sacrifices for her when they got married. He didn't want his wife to work . . . My grandfathers are dead. My father's brother died on my ninth birthday, and he was my godfather. My father is my role model. He's the only man I have in this family . . .

"I was jokin' him last night. I said, 'Listen, you better start exercising, because I'm gonna knock you around on the tennis court.' But we're not competitive. I destroy him, so there's no competition."

Zaccaro, on his way to another event, doesn't bother to stifle a huge yawn.

"I think I've been to 38 states already, or maybe it's 35," he says. "I was counting last night and I got to 32 before I fell asleep."

Which is what he does now.