HOUSTON, OCT. 29 -- Behold the flea market of ideas.

The six Republicans who would be president had just finished debating Wednesday night when suddenly the press room at the George Brown Convention Center was awash in chaos and babble. It was, in some ways, a terrifying scene, as a frenzied mob of candidates and their representatives nearly trampled the nation's political reporters, many of them still typing away at their portable computers.

"I would have liked to have taken a longer look at the deficit!" said retired general Alexander Haig, assessing his performance from an emplacement in the crowd.

"I thought he looked presidential!" said Mary Louise Smith, former Republican national committeewoman from Iowa, talking up her man George Bush in a tight spot 20 feet away.

"The vice president was out of control at one point!" said Charles Black, campaign manager for New York Rep. Jack Kemp. "Clearly he was off the script!"

"George has to win these debates!" insisted Kansas Sen. Robert Dole's manager, William Brock. "He's the front-runner! Tell me somebody said he won and I'll buy you a steak!"

"Hi, I'm Frank Haig -- Al's younger brother!" said a Jesuit priest in clerical garb, sticking out his hand.

Journalists have dubbed such postdebate assaults "spin patrols" -- a phrase that reflects the aggressors' attempts to get their analysis, or "spin," in the next day's newspaper and television stories. The point is to put your candidate in the best light possible while running down the other guy, hoping that your spin will find its way into the voters' perception.

The practice has been going on in earnest since the 1980 debates between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, but Wednesday night it appeared to have reached a new and dizzying height.

"There's so much spin patrolling going on here," said Cable News Network reporter Gene Randall, "the room is likely to take off and spin by itself."

Bush and Dole each had at least four spinners spinning on their behalfs. Kemp, Haig and former Delaware governor Pete du Pont showed up to do their own spinning, and after they departed left designated spinners to continue the job.

Some, like political consultants David Keene and Donald Devine, both brandishing fragrant Macanudo cigars in the service of Dole, hit the pressroom Wednesday morning to start their predebate spins -- a procedure designed to mold reporters' expectations to a candidate's best advantage. Then there was the mid-debate spin: Keene, watching the debate on TV in the pressroom, strategically rolling his eyes, or Haig spinner Harvey Sicherman turning at one point to purr into a reporter's ear, "Except for my own man, they've all fallen into the trap of taking the question seriously."

Among the postdebate spinners, some stayed until almost everyone else had managed to escape.

"He talked about tough leadership, tough issues," Haig press secretary Dan Mariaschin said as reporters backed slowly away. "He's a tough leader."

"I really think Pat had everyone praising him and nobody sniping at him," said Robertson spokesman Ben Waldman. "I'm very pleased with Pat's performance."

"Frankly, I'd like to know what the press thinks," said New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, spinning for Bush.

Michael Kramer of U.S. News & World Report said the spin patrols have their place. "They're useful insofar as sometimes you'll get a truer view of how hard a particular campaign wants to hit an opponent," he said, citing Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater's postdebate comment that "Dole was good because he didn't show his dark side."

"You get a sense of who they're scared of," Kramer said.

"I would suspect they do have an effect," he said when asked whether the patrols do the campaigns any good. "Especially on people with real tight deadlines."

"A campaign is communication," Keene said in defense of spin. "On the margin you may come out better." But all the spinning in the world will be for naught if the candidate screws up, he cautioned. "You can't have your candidate get on TV and lay an egg and then say, 'That's the greatest egg I've ever seen.' "

Not everyone, however, seemed convinced of the efficacy of spinning.

"Does the press need that?" demanded Mark Nuttle, Robertson's campaign manager. "I've had several people in the press tell me they don't like the spin."

Still, Nuttle showed up in the press room after the debate and, like everyone else, spun his heart out.