It's a nightmare; it's a dream.

In any case -- they're ready.

Hotel rooms in Atlanta have been reserved for two extra days this July but Democratic National Committee officials can barely bring themselves to discuss the possibility of actually using them. Journalists, by contrast, can't stop discussing it. And political oddsmakers live to be a part of the chaos just once before they die.

The subject is an open, or "brokered," Democratic convention -- when the primaries fail to produce a clear winner and the convention voting is pushed beyond the first ballot to come up with a nominee. The possibilities are endless, and from the Wendy's of Waterloo, Iowa, to the bars of Manchester, N.H., scenarios by the dozen are being crafted and floated by campaign junkies.

"It's wishful thinking on all our parts . . ." says Robert Squier, a media consultant. "I mean, everyone would be shucking and jiving."

And yet . . .

"The way it looks now, I think it's possible, if not probable, that we could have the nomination decided in Atlanta at a so-called 'open convention,' " says Robert Strauss, the party activist who is often mentioned as a potential broker.

Strauss' conjectures dance in the head of many a party leader: "If one candidate wins Iowa," he says, "and another wins New Hampshire, and the South gets split up -- then you have three candidates already going to Atlanta. And, of course, Jesse Jackson . . ."

The open convention rationale is obvious. The Iowa caucuses may be near -- with Rep. Richard Gephardt as the most recent leading man -- but it's a long way from Des Moines to Atlanta. What happens if no one breaks out of the pack?

While Michael Dukakis is favored to win the New Hampshire primary, no fewer than four candidates have led the Iowa polls over the past 10 months: Gary Hart (before Donna Rice), then Jackson, then Gephardt, then Sen. Paul Simon, then Hart (post-Rice) again, and now Gephardt.

What if voters really end up choosing "none of the above"?

Come July 18 in Atlanta, if no candidate has locked up the necessary majority of the 4,161 delegates needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot, Democrats could go to a second ballot for the first time since 1952. Think of the pandemonium!

Asked to do precisely that, several authors -- experts in political fantasy -- have put together their own recipes for Democratic fireworks in Atlanta.

Scenario 1 Courtesy of Christopher Buckley, author of "The White House Mess":

Hart, having -- oddly -- lost in Iowa, New Hampshire, Arkansas, North Dakota, Maine, Vermont and Wyoming, will move to Ireland and write a humorous novel titled "I Don't Have to Answer That." Warren Beatty will option it for the screen and -- oddly -- it will never be made.

Jackson, having lost in as many states, will convert to Islam and demand that his forces write the education, arms control and anti-Zionism parts of the platform. Dukakis, having won only Massachusetts, announces he will pick Babbitt as his running mate. Gephardt, Simon, Al Gore and Babbitt will form the so-called "Unholy Alliance," which will lose a desperate bid to force the convention to nominate two candidates for president and two for vice president.

On the fourth and fifth ballots, the Democrats will mistakenly nominate Michael Jackson, who will immediately issue a Shermanesque statement, but offer in his place Bubbles, his personal chimpanzee. Robert Strauss will be called in to negotiate, and will emerge, tie askew, grinning, "Bubbles is out. Babbitt is in." He will demand a pastrami sandwich, which he will be denied.

But seriously, folks. Can the convention end up as an ode to Democratic madness?

"We are not going to go on national television and go 103 ballots!" says Mark Siegel, delegate and Democratic National Committee member. "We are not going to put on a spectacle for Dan Rather."

"The system won't allow it," says Scott Lang, a former DNC official and an expert on delegate selection. "Someone will emerge from Iowa and New Hampshire."

Observers note that many conventions have to some extent been "brokered" -- but usually before delegates convened. In 1984, 1976 and 1972, the nominees would not quite have gone over the top on the first ballot without back-door maneuvering for their last delegates. And in 1960, John Kennedy won only after some frantic negotiating prior to calling the roll of states.

But at a truly open convention, the party descends on the host city with no idea who will be nominated. Haggling occurs on the convention floor, perhaps in view of cameras, in trailers, in the elevators, on the streets, and it can be -- to say the least -- anxiety-inducing.

"If we end up going five or six days, the logistics alone are mind-boggling," says Jim Carey of the DNC. "Think of the 4,000 hotel rooms, and how we would communicate with all those delegates."

"We are definitely covered," says Don Fowler, convention chairman in Atlanta. "I have guaranteed the rooms and booked the hall for an overrun . . . This is routine, keep in mind. This can't happen."

Scenario 2 Courtesy of Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), coauthor (with Gary Hart) of "The Double Man":

Simon wins Iowa. Hart shocks Dukakis and the pundits by winning New Hampshire and placing second in Massachusetts. Gore and Jackson split the South. Babbitt rides the whirlwinds of the Western states . . . Gephardt hangs onto his House colleagues, who are delegates . . . The disarray that struck the streets of Chicago in 1968 has moved to Atlanta. Anxious delegates look to the wings. No one is there. Bill Bradley is in Tokyo meeting with Takeshita. Sam Nunn is in Moscow with Gorbachev. Finally the delegates look up.

Mario Cuomo is sitting where he is most comfortable, in the rafters. He moves from network booth to booth, issuing Shermanesque statements. On the sixth ballot the roar is so loud that Mario believes he has heard the very voice of God.

"Lord," he asks, eyes heavenward, "should I let this cup pass from my lips?"

"No," comes the roar that has now broken the decibel range of mortals. "No, Mariooo . . ."

It's hard to imagine Cuomo, the New York governor, ending up as the nominee without winning a single primary. But some party officials concede privately that they have considered all eventualities. "We think about it all the time," acknowledges a high-ranking DNC official involved in planning.

Some are even starting to sound as if they hope to get a jump on impending disaster. This month, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) revealed that he had been meeting privately with Strauss and former Virginia governor Charles Robb, among others, to discuss alternative candidates in the event one of the current crop doesn't catch fire. Alternatives mentioned include: Cuomo, Sen. Bradley of New Jersey, Sen. Nunn of Georgia, House Speaker Jim Wright and House Majority Leader Thomas Foley.

Recently, former presidential candidate and senator George McGovern suggested himself as a possibility of last resort. And Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd said last week that he hoped for a brokered convention because that would allow the delegates to choose a candidate with the "right blend of ability and appeal ..." He also said that although he has "no intentions" of running for president, he could do the job.

"My problem," he told the Charleston Daily Mail, "would be getting the nomination."

Scenario 3 Courtesy of James Grady, author of "Six Days of the Condor":

By the first day of the convention, it was clear that the remaining players were through:

Jackson staged a Rainbow Coalition rally to show his broad-based support, but Louis Farrakhan raced onto the stage to join in Jackson's stirring cheer, "I am Somebody!" By midnight, Jackson was nobody. Delegates deserted Gore after wife Tipper warned the convention to beware of the moral dangers of singing "Happy Days Are Here Again." To dispel his "cold" image, Dukakis publicly joked that "I do not wear my underwear too tight," but the delegates did not share the jest. Babbitt's "Put Bruce on the Ballot" backfired when 17 percent of the delegates went to Bruce Springsteen.

And Simon told delegates, "With me you know what you've got."

Came the hour to vote: A spontaneous demonstration erupted throughout the arena: "Mario! Mario! Mario!" Pat Schroeder nominated Cuomo; Jack Nicholson seconded. And on the fourth and final night, the Cuomo-Simon ticket launched itself with the slogan "Obeying History's Call."

The system is not, and never has been, fail-safe.

From 1832 until 1932, the Democratic Party required a two-thirds majority of delegates for the nomination. The nominee, it was believed, would reflect a unified party, but the effect was to hand over control to party bosses and deter potentially popular candidates from getting into the race. A simple majority rule went into effect in 1932.

The next -- and last -- instance of Democratic multiballoting came in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson was nominated on the third ballot, a result of a "draft." But that was an odd year: Incumbent Harry Truman chose not to run again, and the party bosses disliked leading candidate Sen. Estes Kefauver, who had won the New Hampshire primary. But in those days, delegates weren't bound by primary results and there were fewer primaries. At the convention in Chicago, Stevenson, the former Illinois governor, was further enveloped by support and affection for the native son.

Rules experts insist that such a splintered convention is highly unlikely today. They cite several reasons, beginning with the extended primary contests, which tend to give candidates momentum and a base of committed support. Along with that, the news media can make an unknown a powerful force overnight. Gary Hart's second-place finish in Iowa in 1984 helped him capture the New Hampshire primary.

"If we get to the point where no candidate has the nomination after the California primary {June 7}, there is going to be a search for a consensus," says Siegel. "We will look for an alternative before we reach Atlanta."

But who among the candidates would step aside?

Scenario 4 Courtesy of Ross Thomas, author of "Out on the Rim":

Although the odds against a brokered Democratic convention are astronomical -- well, 8 to 5, anyway -- it could happen if Jackson emerges from Super Tuesday with enough delegates to rival those of Gore.

Willie Brown, chairman of the Jackson campaign, would then emerge as a new kingmaker. The wily speaker of the California assembly would place in nomination the name of a favorite-son candidate, who would also offer eight years of virtually unparalleled experience as chief executive of the nation's most populous state: Jerry Brown, fresh from his Zen meditations in Japan, eliminates all ho-hummery from the fall campaign.

The more serious problem at a brokered convention has less to do with numbers than it does with egos. To be sure, if one candidate has close to the needed 2,081-delegate majority, the last stragglers could be convinced with relative ease. Giving notice that "the train is leaving the station" still carries considerable weight.

But consider Strauss' scenario, the possibility of three major candidates heading into the convention with equal numbers of delegates.

"I mean, which ones are going to say, 'Okay, I'll step aside and let you have it'?" says one DNC staffer. "You have to assume that if these guys are running, they want this very badly and their egos are way too big for them to step aside."

"I tend to think that the nominee will come from among those who are running," says Strauss. "But some people do believe that the candidates wouldn't want to give the nomination to one of their own."

Which brings one to the actual "brokering" part. A viable power broker in this setting is anyone who can deliver a large block of delegates. Realistically, this is not someone like Strauss, who doesn't have a constituency. He might, however, be asked to be one of the presiders. "I bring discussion and gray hair to the table," he says.

This mediating role would also fall to a number of other party leaders, such as party Chairman Paul Kirk, Sen. Ted Kennedy and House Speaker Wright. The television networks can also play a serious role, as the various factions use the airwaves to carry messages to the rival camps.

True power-wielders would no doubt include labor leaders such as the AFL-CIO's Lane Kirkland (who would influence delegates from organized labor). The "superdelegates" -- Democratic National Committee members and four-fifths of the Democratic-controlled Congress -- would likely have a major influence on their state delegations. Other logical brokers could be mayors with strong constituencies, like Richard Arrington Jr. of Birmingham, Andrew Young of Atlanta or Wilson Goode of Philadelphia. Governors (also superdelegates) with large blocks -- such as Richard Celeste of Ohio, James Blanchard of Michigan, and Cuomo -- would certainly also have a say.

The active candidates, too, would try to be brokers, perhaps first seeking a consensus figure from among themselves. If that failed, party leaders could be forced to consider a "draft" -- nominating someone who hadn't been a candidate.

Then the fun would begin.

Scenario 5 Courtesy of Jeremy Larner, former Eugene McCarthy speech writer and screen writer of "The Candidate."

The man who emerges in Atlanta with the bargaining chips is Gore, his youthful use of marijuana offset by his wife's crusade against rock 'n' roll. His cadre of Harvard-trained negotiators burns up the WATS lines to deal with the one running mate who can make his nomination unstoppable . . . Suddenly the TV crews stampede to the roof of the Omni, where a helicopter alights and Ron and Nancy descend . . . Reagan's ticket-balancing qualities are obvious: He is older, a Westerner, an antigovernment maverick . . .

But why would he want to be a Democratic VP? Henry Kissinger explains to Ted Koppel that Reagan cannot succeed himself as president, and after listening to Bush campaign, Reagan feels he is the only American fit to "sit across the table from Gorbachev." . . . Down on the convention floor, rioting Democrats celebrate their sure-fire victory . . . In the back of the hall, presumptive Secretary of Health and Human Services Gary Hart turns to Secretary of Education Joe Biden and sighs, "What do we do now?"

Not all fiction writers see levity in the plight of the Democrats. One purveyor of political history refused to entertain a scenario. Talking by phone from his home in Ravello, Italy, Gore Vidal was aghast.

"What's the point of even engaging in this sort of thing?" he demanded. "The republic is crumbling. We are going into a depression. There is anarchy and civil unrest. It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference who is nominated or elected. We are through."

Whatever you do, don't tell the Democrats.