MINNEAPOLIS -- First the VIPs scheduled to meet President and Mrs. Gorbachev were herded into an elegant old mansion.

They were carefully arranged behind ropes and seated in a semicircle around an X marking the spot where the Soviet leader would speak.

Then suddenly the ropes were down and the luminaries were hustled outside to the yard of the Minnesota governor's mansion. U.S. officials said the shift was caused by the Soviet security forces, who worried about their leader moving across a particular public space.

But within a few moments Mikhail Gorbachev emerged, shook hands with the superstars of Minnesota politics and then hurried across the very street that the KGB had been trying to keep out of reach.

If Gorbachev's style captured the heart of many in this all-American city, it loomed as a nightmare for those trying to make his trip run smoothly and on time.

Schedules of the leader's activities were difficult to find intact even a few hours before he arrived. On the State Department protocol airplane that carried many Soviet and U.S. officials helping with the trip, a schedule handed out early in the flight was replaced less than an hour later. Joseph V. Reed, chief of protocol for the United States, personally handed the schedule to four reporters traveling along and pointed carefully to a note on the cover. It said: "This portion of President and Mrs. Gorbachev's schedule has been arranged by the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."

It turned out to be a floating schedule that changed with the brisk 20-knot wind. As Gorbachev and his party flew to Minneapolis, for example, they decided to scrap a trip to a typical American dairy farm because the visit would warp the schedule. "You can't visit a man's farm in just a few minutes," explained William F. Black, assistant chief of protocol. "You can't just make a quick stop at a farm."

The change in plans, however, disappointed not only the farmer and his family but also thousands of reporters who had planned colorful comparisons with the farm visit of Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. To salve the farmer's feelings, however, he and his family were asked to come to the airport to see the Gorbachevs off personally.

The Soviet president's schedule seemed the most flexible as he rode through the Twin Cities. Four times during the trip through Minneapolis he burst from the limousine and, as much as a burly coterie of Soviet security agents would allow, reached for outstretched hands in the crowd. Beckoned by signs that welcomed Gorbachev in Russian and even suggested that he get the Nobel Peace Prize, he succumbed to the lure of the crowds and rushed toward the barricades where citizens were being barely restrained.

Later Raisa Gorbachev practiced the same method of meeting ordinary Americans. After leaving the Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, Mrs. Gorbachev asked that her motorcade stop at a Mexican deli, Pepito's. The press was ushered from the scene but Mrs. Gorbachev spoke to two customers at length, according to a reporter who was present.

A few minutes later she left the restaurant and walked around the corner to a Snyder Drug store on Nicollet Avenue. There she encountered Carey Kilbo, the merchandise manager, and quizzed her through an interpreter: How much of the store's merchandise was imported? Kilbo replied that the store sold cookies from Denmark and sardines from Norway. How many employees worked in the store? About 18, Mrs. Gorbachev was told.

She then asked whether both men and women worked in the store, and how much they were paid. When Kilbo answered that the pay "started out at the minimum wage," Mrs. Gorbachev asked whether the workers were paid on commission. No, she was told. Mrs. Gorbachev also wanted to know how much vacation employees received (one week after one year, two weeks after two years). When Mrs. Gorbachev asked her if pregnant women received maternity leave, Kilbo said she was not sure.

Mrs. Gorbachev spent a few minutes browsing the aisles, picking up some orange nail polish and asking the price ($3). After a brief discussion on the merits of nail polish, she moved on to a lipstick display and examined a bottle of suntan lotion, some hairbrushes, plastic wrap and a jar of banana nuts. Then she bought a package of gum inside a plastic Nintendo figure. She left moments later to the cheers of a crowd of about 400 that had assembled on the sidewalk.

Soviet Protocol Chief V.I. Chernyshev told reporters traveling with State Department representatives that he had asked U.S. protocol officials to help arrange the Minneapolis and San Francisco trips because "this is not our home port." Chernyshev said the visit to the farm was particularly important because "we now have a possibility to learn more than we could in earlier years." But as the protocol chief was explaining the importance of the farm to reporters, his boss, on another airplane, was apparently deciding he couldn't fit the farm scene into his agenda.

In spite of the tentative nature of the Gorbachevs' schedule -- at least by White House standards -- by the end of the visit the entourage was surprisingly close to the original schedule issued that morning.