The new Coke made a splash in Washington yesterday, first at a private news conference and then at a public mob scene. By offering free new Coke for all, the company triggered a graphic demonstration of what is meant by "free-for-all." Some people carried away whole cases while some got none at all.

Most of the people who had their first taste of it yesterday said they still recognize it as Coke. It's something like the old stuff and something like all the other colas in the world -- a little bit lighter, a little bit sweeter than before.

By the end of next week, you won't be able to buy the old stuff anywhere in the company's Mid-Atlantic region, which stretches roughly from Harrisburg, Pa., to Tidewater Virginia. By the middle of May, the new Coke will be all you can get under the 99-year-old name of Coca-Cola in most of the United States.

In the new formula, Merchandise 7X-100, the caffeine level remains unchanged. Otherwise, it's hard to say exactly what has been done, with one secret formula replacing another.

At its Washington debut, where sample cans came in silver ice buckets, the response was almost free of negatives, mostly ranging from moderate approval to wild enthusiasm.

Put down Brian G. Dyson as a wild enthusiast. He said that the change of taste was "momentous," and that "the best-tasting soft drink in the world now is even better." And no doubt he would say that even if he were not the president of Coca-Cola USA.

As president of the company's American branch (the leader of the 155 nations where Coke is marketed), Dyson is apparently not quite a member of the inner-inner circle. "I don't know the formula," he admitted when the questioning bubbled over at the news conference. Pushed by one questioner, he conceded that the new formula would undoubtedly rot teeth at about the same rate as the old formula. But mostly he waxed lyrical about the company's cosmic goal: "To build on the heritage of this product, but to offer something more."

Bill Cosby is also enthusiastic. He uses the word "better" almost obsessively in discussing the new flavor. Unlike Dyson, Cosby was not at the news conference. But he was represented in a lavish selection from the more than 20 commercials he has already taped for the new product.

"The real thing" is -- understandably -- not being pushed hard as a motif, at the moment. But it pops up occasionally in the new commercials and may come back strong later, perhaps in about six months when the "New!" label comes off the slightly redesigned cans.

A block away from the Pennsylvania Avenue news conference, in Western Plaza across from the National Theatre, the Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co. distributed free new Cokes to an enthusiastic lunch-hour crowd for two hours. Some members of the crowd took a single can and stood sipping and savoring it while they listened to rock music (including commercials) supplied by a Washington group, Sinbad.

"I like it," said Tom O'Reilly of Virginia. "I'm a Pepsi drinker, and it's more like Pepsi."

"I think they've added sugar," said Gerry Weis of Gaithersburg, who described herself as "not usually a Coke drinker."

"When are they going to do this with Budweiser?" she wondered.

There were quite a few placards in the plaza (which some workers in the Municipal Building across the street have nicknamed "Demonstration Plaza"). Some were strictly business: "Try the great new taste of Coke now in Western Plaza." But others seem to have wandered over from Lafayette Park: "The SS are laughing in their graves."

But there were no demonstrations, except demonstrations of greed.

"About 1,000 cases" were brought to the plaza, according to a Coke spokesman -- theoretically enough to give one can each to 24,000 people.

Barrels filled with ice cubes were set up throughout the plaza, and Coke employes would come up periodically with hand trucks to load them with cans. But none of the Coke had a chance to get cold. The average stay of a case of Coke in one of the barrels was about five seconds. When all went well, people grabbed single cans almost as soon as they hit the ice. More often, some of the crowd's more vigorous members would grab an entire case and dash off with it.

As hand trucks made their way along the sidewalk, waves of bystanders would start to follow, growing like a surf and breaking over the barrels when the Cokes were unloaded. The losers could be seen, after the turmoil subsided, picking through the barrels and finding only empty cans.

"They said one to a customer," said Tom O'Reilly, who had one can, "but I saw one guy walking off with two cases."

In the middle of one mob scene, a tall, dignified man in a business suit brought some momentary order. "Stop!" he shouted; "you're acting like animals. Take just one!" and for a few minutes, in that corner of the plaza, chaos was suspended.

He later identified himself as Ed Washington, vice president for market development of the Mid-Atlantic bottling company, and said he had "never seen anything like it."

"We want to give samples to as many people as possible," he said, "but some people are grabbing as much as they can."

He was interrupted by the voice of a woman walking through the crowd, carrying several cans and shouting loudly, "Anybody got some rum?"