She shows up everywhere--at Bush events, at Bradley events, even at Keyes events. Orrin Hatch hugged her once. Gary Bauer goes out of his way to shake her hand. But Al Gore? His people always kick her out. And Steve Forbes's minions don't have much use for her, either. They see her coming and they start pointing at the door: Scram!

Oh, to be M.L. Lindon, following candidates around the state, wearing an apron and a smile and passing out shortbread cookies. Cookie Lady, they call her. Except her cookies, hard as hockey pucks, are less for eating and more to make a point. She is the star of a crusade being waged by Iowans for Sensible Priorities, a nonprofit group that advocates shifting 15 percent of the defense budget to education and health care for kids. Each white-frosted confection, sealed in plastic, is colorfully decorated with a pie chart--or would that be cookie chart?--showing the group's view of how federal money should be spent.

Lindon, a 50-year-old grandmother with Des Moines community playhouse credits, used to be able to ditch her red apron, leave her basket of cookies under a table and blend into the crowd, from which she would then put candidates on the spot with pointed queries about their spending priorities. They'd happily take her questions, not realizing she was Cookie Lady. But they're onto her now. She's become too bright a candle--with her own yard signs, her own pamphlet, even her own TV commercial.

The Cookie Lady proves that presidential campaigns are not just about the candidates. They are also about the characters. Like Mortimer Moose, the antler-wearing environmental protester who became a mini-celebrity in New Hampshire during the '96 campaign. This time around, we've seen ducks and "sacred" cows and pigs protesting one issue or another. We've seen carolers descend on campaign headquarters singing better-health-care ditties to the tune of "White Christmas." The environmentalist group Ozone Action sent men in skis to a Democratic debate in snow-barren New Hampshire to make a point about global warming.

Gimmickry has its place, and on the eve of the campaign's first presidential caucuses, that place is Iowa. There is no better venue than the American political stage to try some gambit, some clever trick, to draw attention to your cause.

Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, came up with the idea of Cookie Lady. He's the founder of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a collection of 500 executives and former military leaders who believe there is too much being spent on the military--$40 billion too much, to be precise. The nation would be better off, they believe, if the government turned this money over to states to use for local needs. Iowans for Sensible Priorities, a branch of the larger effort, has managed to get 20,000 Iowans to sign a petition endorsing the cause. Organizers also persuaded 555 people to carry a resolution, calling for a realignment of Pentagon spending, to the precinct caucuses tonight.

Lindon's evolution to Cookie Lady began after seeing one of the Iowa group's television ads in September. Initially she thought the group might be anti-military. And she wasn't about to support that, her husband being a West Point graduate. Still, as a former schoolteacher and parent of three, she was intrigued by the group's message. She stopped by its headquarters in Des Moines and ended up volunteering. Then one of the organizers told her, "Ben has this wonderful idea to have this mom character who would hand out cookies to the people and the press along the campaign trail," Lindon recalls. "To try to make this message more personal."

Cookie Lady was born, and very quickly the bit turned into a full-time job. And not an easy one. No candidate wants to look even remotely as if he's soft on defense. Not to mention that defense contractors are big political contributors. Lindon followed the candidates everywhere with mixed results. At a Bill Bradley event in Redfield, she grabbed the candidate's hand and wouldn't let go. "If you cut 15 percent out of Pentagon waste," she told him, "you can fund everything you want to do." Bradley smiled, but uncomfortably. "He tried to get away, but I had such a grip."

Some of the campaigns have gotten hip to her technique. Spotting her trying to melt into the crowd, workers will sometimes stand in front of her so their candidate won't call on her during Q&A and the cameras won't pan to her. But Cookie Lady has gotten wise, too. She now carries a little atomizer of water, and if someone pulls that stunt she squirts the back of his neck and goes, "Ahh-chewww!"

The ol' fake-sneeze play.

"Oh, do they jump," she says with a mischievous smile. "So I'm not Mom all the time."

On Saturday evening, at a Forbes rally in Des Moines, Cookie Lady and two others from her group entered the Marriott meeting room. They got the same treatment they always get from the Forbes camp.

"Ma'am, we paid for this event," said a Forbes aide, "so we're going to have to ask you to stay outside. And all of your staff, too." So Cookie Lady left the room and worked the lobby, tapping people on the shoulder. "Would you like a cookie, dear?"

Tomorrow, after the caucuses are over, the crusade in Iowa will be over, too, and Cookie Lady will go back to being M.L. Lindon. But there will be others to take her place out there on the trail. Frog Man or Ollie the Octopus or somebody dressed up like Abe Lincoln. It's going to happen because presidential politics is not just about the candidates. It's also about the characters.