DES MOINES, JULY 26 -- Hattie Babbitt was the clear winner in the humor department, referring to herself and her counterparts as the "fabulous dwarfettes." Tipper Gore seized the opportunity to plug her book, "available in your local bookstores." Jeanne Simon told everyone that the first thing she would do at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. would be to abolish the term "first lady." And Jill Biden one-upped them all, bringing The Candidate himself along, as he said, "to carry her bags."

The wives of six of the Democratic presidential candidates were on display here today for the "First Ladies Forum," a panel sponsored by the Polk County Democrats. As far as anyone could recall, it was the first time party officials in this state (or any state, for that matter) had what is commonly known as a candidates' "cattle call" exclusively for spouses.

Judging from the coverage, it won't be the last. Roughly 60 members of the press and more than 200 spectators crowded the foyer outside the Drake University auditorium where the forum was held. You knew a wife by the trail of klieg lights that followed her. And when Hattie Babbitt and Kitty Dukakis kissed the air behind each other's cheeks, the cameras went wild.

"Wouldn't you know we'd both wear red and black," Babbitt mumbled to Dukakis. They both giggled like the contestants in a beauty contest. Which in a way they were.

Each woman was asked to speak on one topic -- and for five minutes only -- when she took to the stage: how she would view her role as first lady. The format was rather like the Big Question at the end of the Miss America competition, the one that's supposed to reveal the IQ above the bathing suit.

Phil Roeder, spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, said the decision not to entertain questions at the end of the forum was essentially dictated by the candidates' campaign staffs. "We felt the campaigns out about the possibility of a debate and the feeling was that {the wives} weren't going to get votes by going after their counterparts," he said.

Without exception, the women all stayed with relatively safe topics, including education, family and the homeless.

Hattie Babbitt (wife of former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt) went first, and tickled the crowd with some good lines right away.

"It's a real honor to be here when I think of those grand women who did so much as first ladies," she said. "People with names like Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Rosalynn Carter. And then I look at us. People with names like Hattie, Kitty, Tipper."

The crowd roared. She paused as if to get serious. "One of us up here will join that illustrious group," she said, "and the rest of us will go on to look, through life, for regular adult names."

Babbitt went on to say that it would be great to have Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) in the race, but that Jim Schroeder wouldn't be with them today. "He couldn't decide what to wear," she deadpanned.

Getting serious, she urged helping children through better education and health care. As first lady, "my issue would be investment in our children, specifically education," she said. She advocated federally subsidized day care for low-income families, higher salaries for teachers and a reading program in every day care center.

Tipper Gore, on her first solo run to Iowa, spoke of her longtime effort to clean up rock music and insisted that "I do not advocate any type of government censorship."

The wife of Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore took a swipe at both Nancy Reagan and Oliver North by saying that while first ladies have contributed much to the country, "we are not going to tolerate unelected representatives running government policy from either the White House dinner table or the White House basement."

Kitty Dukakis recalled being en route to Ottumwa on her first day of campaigning in Iowa. "The only person I knew from Ottumwa," she joked, "was Radar O'Reilly from M*A*S*H!"

Dukakis said that as first lady she would continue the work she has done as first lady of Massachusetts, where her husband Michael is in his third term as governor. This would include, she said, pushing for federal funding to shelter the homeless, and helping to reunite refugee families.

She too took a slap at the Reagan administration for not reappointing her to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. "When the press called the White House to ask why, they were told it was because I am a Democrat," she said.

Dukakis steered clear of her recent revelation that she'd had a long-term addiction to amphetamines that ended five years ago.

Jeanne Simon, wife of Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, said she hoped to become an "ombudsman for the American people." Specifically, she spoke of Title 9 of the Education Amendments of 1972 having been "rendered less effective" by the Supreme Court. "I want to see Congress restore the law so that all girls and women have an equal opportunity for education," she said.

Asked later if she would press her case with President Simon, she quipped, "You I bet I would. I've been doing it for 27 years."

Jane Gephardt opened her comments by saying how honored she was to be with this "extraordinary group of young women." Simon, 65, looked at the audience, smiled and shrugged. Gephardt -- whose husband Richard, a Missouri representative, has been virtually living in Iowa for months -- said that as first lady she would focus on "the pressures that strain families and the ways that we can strengthen them." Important though it is, "it's not enough for children to say no to drugs," she said. "We must also give them a reason to say yes to life."

Jill Biden, a schoolteacher, also spoke of the need for stronger family values and education. "I want an America that is 100 percent literate," she said. "I presently teach at a psychiatric hospital. Most of the children I teach are there because they have tried to commit suicide and I know firsthand that it is not just physical deprivation that is hurting our children. The challenge they face in this confusing time requires psychological nurturing as well."

After she spoke, Biden took her seat on the stage and looked straight at her husband, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who nodded his approval.

The Bidens did an elegant minuet here today, with the senator staying a few steps behind his wife during the social hour in order not to upstage her. The cameras were behind him.

Reporters pressed the couple on why he chose to show up. "I think people want to see we're a team out there," Jill Biden said. "I think it reflects values. I think marriage is important to them."

"Whatever she says," smiled Joe Biden. He emphasized that she would be a "co-occupant" of the White House, but said that in time of crisis "it's going to be my secretary of state I sit down with, not my wife."

The forum was conceived by Sharon Deardon, executive director of the Polk County Democratic Party. "I was just sitting at home one night and thought, 'Hey, this would be great. Let's get them here,' " Deardon said.

They're a demanding lot, these Iowa Democrats. They snap their fingers and the whole crowded field descends on this farm state -- home to the first major presidential contest of 1988. In May, the same Polk County group sponsored a fish fry and invited all the husbands to come courting. They got even more than they bargained for: Gary Hary unexpectedly quit the race several days beforehand, and the fish fry turned into a media heaven for all.

As everyone knows by now, Iowa makes a difference (just ask Jimmy Carter). But state party leaders nonetheless scoffed at the notion that today's event was yet another command performance, a perfect example of the little degradations Iowa Democrats force on the competitors.

"It's a two-way street," said John Roehrick, vice chair of the state party. "We are providing a great many services to them. We give them equal access to all our lists. We give them crowds. And we give them a chance to practice for the rest of the country."

And practice they did -- all except Jackie Jackson, wife of unannounced candidate Jesse Jackson, who declined the invitation because of scheduling conflicts.

In the end, though, it may have been the chairman of the Polk County Democrats who was the most candid about the relevance of today's forum to the fate of the candidates. Said Jim Carnahan: "I don't think it makes a difference one way or the other."