It was high noon at Freedom Plaza downtown -- site of the midday Nelson Mandela rally-that-never-was -- and though hundreds were waiting, there wasn't a cowboy in sight. Still, folks were squaring off for a showdown.

The question that caused the confrontation: Do you find Nelson Mandela a bit, well, uncompromising?

"He's just different from most people -- and his attitude gets people's attention," said Joanne Hurley of Visalia, Calif., who's vacationing here with her husband and three young sons, all with hair in varying shades of Pacific blond. "What does he have to lose -- he's already spent almost 30 years in jail."

"But he's here trying to get the American people to support him," countered her husband, Russ. "If he alienates people here, it might defeat what he's here to accomplish. He endorsed Castro and -- who's that gentleman from Palestine?"

A tall, bespectacled stranger who'd been listening a few feet away couldn't resist jumping in.

"America's political right," began Larry Brayboy, "would rather attack Mr. Mandela for his support of 'terrorists' while forgetting ... that Reagan and Bush supported people who murdered 30,000 in Nicaragua, supported people who paid $4 billion over 10 years to people who killed 72,000 in El Salvador."

Asked why he and others are so passionate about the African National Congress's soft-spoken leader, Brayboy, an Ann Arbor, Mich., teacher, hesitated.

"Mandela is -- he's refreshing," he said. "We're so used to politicians that won't make a move until they look at their morning opinion polls. This man is different."

Mandela has inspired strong feelings in many who have followed his historic U.S. trip, and his three days in the nation's capital. Many say they're struck by his apparent lack of pretense. Others admire the straightforward way he refused to abandon his support of his "comrades in arms" Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat when "Nightline" host Ted Koppel gave him the chance, his gentle chiding of George Bush when the president suggested the ANC leader should, like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., repudiate armed struggle in all circumstances.

Mandela wasn't changing and said as much. Some have found the tendency disconcerting. Others have reveled in his honesty.

Ronnie Williams, assistant to D.C. Councilman Harry Thomas, couldn't have taken Mandela's straightforwardness more personally. "To a very large extent, Mandela can be considered a global politician. And we're used to politicians who shift with the breeze, who cater ... to whatever audience they're speaking to. Here we have a gentleman who takes a point and sticks by it, regardless of who he's speaking to."

Williams, who had delayed lunch to hear his hero, chose his words carefully.

"I've thought about how I live my life, how I play 'the game.' Where I've always had to sell myself, figuratively speaking, in order to get ahead. To succeed in that, you have to have the philosophy that the person you're selling to is right. But that hasn't been true, sometimes."

He looked up. Most rally participants had dispersed, hopes crushed when it was revealed they'd get no more Mandela than a rushed wave from a passing limousine. A girl's high, reedy voice crooned over the microphone, "Have I ever told you you're my hero? ... You are the wind beneath my wings." But Williams, 35, didn't seem to hear.

"I know I did what I did out of necessity, not choice," he continued. "But it's appealing, relating to a black global politician {like} Mandela, who shoots from the hip, doesn't compromise his morals. He has made me think, change."

Joanne Hurley of California added that Mandela's straightforwardness didn't surprise her -- she and her family are "very straightforward people... . But look at this man. He made me think that I needed to know more about what is going on. ... He made me think about doing more to educate my children about the wrong of apartheid, and to compare what has happened in our own country."

One woman, whose employer is running for mayor and who wished to remain anonymous, said Mandela's clarity made her look more closely at local politics.

"I think we've come to think of politicians as corrupt and compromised," she said. "Mandela made me think about my own boss, who seems so pure, so committed. Because of the Barry phenomenon, I've wondered if {my boss} will stay pure. Or will {the candidate} make compromises on the city's well-being like other politicians do? Mandela doesn't seem to have done that. I was struck by that -- it was just honest, just an honest man."

"The guy is not a politician -- he's a warrior," said Forrest Harris, a 40-year-old personnel administrator from Capitol Heights who clutched a "Mandela -- Free at Last" T-shirt. "At the White House, Bush commented that {Mandela} made his remarks without notes. Even Bush was struck by this man who was talking from his heart and conscience, not from what a speech writer had crafted... . It gives me an inner strength, though it won't outwardly change anything."

Mandela, agreed Philippe dePontet, "doesn't sacrifice anything." The 19-year-old Princeton sophomore and Tom Cruise look-alike lives in the District and is working this summer at the National Endowment for the Arts.

"I believe that people should learn to accept each other. ... But I don't do enough. He gives me hope -- that we could break down these barriers, that it's possible. ... If you can't be inspired by this man, you can't be inspired at all.""

Listening to 22-year-old Georgetown law student Karen Davis, one got the impression her lapel button -- "Too Black, Too Strong" -- wasn't an exaggeration. "Why are black people always supposed to be the ones giving something up? In his own country, he can't vote, he has no rights, and then they have the nerve to say he should make concessions."

She was angry, but definitely in control. "In life, you do have to compromise, and {Mandela} did make me think about that... . He made me think that there's no point in being stubborn about issues that are not important ... made me realize that people pay attention to a strong black person. That when they see that you are as steadfast as anyone else, they'll respect you. He's done that -- no one sees him as another black face."

Lindiwe Mabuza, chief ANC representative to the United States, has been among those closest to that gracefully furrowed face during the tour. As Mabuza left The Washington Post, where Mandela had met with editors and reporters, she admitted that she, too, was affected by her boss's refusal to abandon views and people that are important to him.

"I think he can be compromising -- but not on principle. Tactically, yes. But what compromise can you make on democracy, on equality, on human rights?"

She was interrupted by cheers from Mandela maniacs behind cordons, who waved and smiled at the leader. She smiled when asked how working with Mandela has touched her.

"It's a recharging of the batteries, you get that from meeting great people," she said. "They elevate you -- something gets bigger inside you. Not the ego, but living up to your ideals."

She smiled again.

"And his ideals are monumental ideals."