Nineteen Connecticut high school students and their three teachers came by the office of Rep. Pat Schroeder the other afternoon. The Colorado Democrat, who is 47, 14 years in the House and senior of the 25 women in Congress, welcomed the kids with the attentiveness other members shower on visiting PAC money men. She moved chairs, greeted everyone with great-to-see-yous and made them feel as if they were at the control center of her political life.

For half an hour, Schroeder, taking students' questions, ranged from the need to overhaul weapons procurement to a wry analysis of Ronald Reagan's fake macho.

These kinds of meetings, which mostly evoke love-tap questions, often end up with the politician belting out a disguised version of "I Gotta Be Me." Schroeder, with neither a large ego nor larynx, finished instead with a question of her own: How many girls want careers of public service? Nearly all raised their hands, double the number of the boys. A smile as bright as Colorado columbine crossed Schroeder's face.

The congresswoman's gift is that she can go before an audience and get across both a message and an ideal. The Connecticut high school students, from Choate Rosemary Hall, perceived in Schroeder what delegates at the national NOW convention in Philadelphia a few days earlier saw: a woman peaking in political skill at a moment when presidential campaigning is in a valley of ordinariness. In Philadelphia, NOW members and friends responded to a Schroeder speech with pledged donations totaling more than $350,000. The calls of "Run, Pat, run" were backed with funds to buy the shoes.

The money from that appearance, plus nearly $200,000 generated by Schroeder's public mullings on a possible candidacy, is a rare reaping. She has no staff in the field for fund raising, no ads, no handlers, no big-name endorsements. Her banker, of sorts, is a nun, a sister of Loretto and close friend. Schroeder recalls that after the speech in Philadelphia, she returned to Washington: "The sister phoned and said, 'I'm in my room. I have all this money. They won't put it in the safe. I don't know what to do!' "

Schroeder does. She plans to use the rest of August seeing if long-haul money is there. She will decide by September. The idea of being a debtor candidate in a debtor nation has little appeal. She is saying "No dough, no go." Her claim to be a fiscally conservative liberal is credible.

Schroeder learned about the folly of big spending as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Years before the ashtray and toilet-seat scandals, Schroeder was saying no to military excesses. They were not riskless nos. A manufacturer of the MX missile is the second largest employer in Colorado.

Schroeder is perhaps the truest friend the military has in Congress, if friendship where it counts -- in fighting for military families, housing allowances, day-care centers -- means anything. She told the Army Times, "One of the most incredible experiences I had as a member of the Armed Services Committee was when I was visiting a base and the base commander told me that his number one concern was day care. He said he couldn't tell them because it wouldn't be cool. I guess he was afraid they might think he had lace on his shorts or something."

Dealing with the male mind is a steady friction. The latest rubbing came when Schroeder was kept from appearing with seven other Democrats in a Houston debate staged by William F. Buckley. Schroeder, told her request came too late, sees a double standard: Gov. William Clinton of Arkansas "was invited twice and said no. When {Albert} Gore was invited he had not announced, and of course Jesse {Jackson} still hasn't announced. There was no criteria that kept me out except chromosomes. In every other thing we matched. If they hadn't invited unannounced other people who were toying with it, then I'd understand."

Democratic Party leaders, with more past failures than Shirley MacLaine has past lives, ought to be elated that Schroeder is thinking about a run. If she were Patrick, not Patricia, she would still have more experience in national politics than any of the seven Democrats now running, more legislative accomplishments in environmental, education and family issues, more competence in stopping military excesses and more quick-wittedness.

For the next few weeks, Schroeder will be running up frequent-flier miles to Iowa, New Hampshire and party gatherings. The sour Houston experience is being countered by the eagerness of Democratic professionals to get her onstage with the other candidates. It's no back-room secret that Schroeder has both the record and style to activate disillusioned voters, perhaps the largest block out there. Then, too, when Democrats ask can a woman win the presidency they recall that the last two Democrats to lose were men.