As Judy Goldsmith radiantly takes the stage at the Bread Oven restaurant, her friends and supporters rise to their feet with an ovation. She smiles, warm beyond expectation at the going-away gift. This is a different Judy Goldsmith from the often dour, always serious, former English teacher who successfully steered the National Organization for Women through the shoals of national politics to get Geraldine Ferraro on the Democratic ticket.

Laughing, she pulls the mike out of its stand and walks around the piano. She calls for a spotlight: "Tonight, I'm making my debut as a cabaret singer," she says, and launches into a rendition of "I Am Woman." She roars.

The evening becomes a release from the anger and bitterness that have brought this crowd of several hundred women together. This summer night Judy Goldsmith is leaving the presidency of NOW, defeated in a surprise upset by former NOW president Eleanor Smeal, the woman who had ironically picked Goldsmith to be her successor when bylaws prevented Smeal from seeking a third term. Though bitter about the defeat, Goldsmith seems determined to leave in style.

"Now, I want everybody to sing this one," says the throaty voice that helped work Judy Goldsmith through college as a songstress.

"Is that an order?" one former staffer yells out.

"Yes, and I am still your president," Goldsmith says, imitating the once-embattled Richard Nixon. She nods to her accompanist and leans into the mike:

"Those were the days, my friend.

We thought they'd never end.

Those were the days, oh yes, those were the days . . . "

THE STRUGGLE between Judy Goldsmith and Eleanor Smeal was one of the hardest fought elections in the history of the National Organization for Women, a group known for its hotly contested elections. Because NOW is the most visible and powerful women's organization in the nation, with the attention of major political leaders, a number of women work hard to control its destiny. Sometimes they fight dirty, but usuall the wounds heal quickly.

This election, however, seriously divided the organization, creating a split wider than NOW had known in more than a decade. Smeal admits, for example, that a majority of NOW's board of directors did not support her presidency.

The alienation both sides feel from each other centers on some of NOW's internal politics, including election tactics; how Smeal handled her transition in late August; differences in leadership styles; and the financial condition of NOW. There is disagreement on many things about NOW, right down to the actual size of the organization.

At bottom, the struggle for the presidency turned on tactics. Goldsmith, known as a "political pragmatist," tried to keep women's issues in the mainstream of politics, with NOW a key player in decisions such as those made in the Mondale-Ferraro campaign. Smeal, as a "passionate idealist" argued that NOW should go "back to the streets," or, as her supporters say, be at "the cutting edge of the women's movement" and worry less about political inner circles.

Neither woman really disagreed about the issues of feminists. Confusingly, it was Smeal who first supported endorsing Mondale and seeking in return a woman on the Democratic ticket, and it was Goldsmith who first brought up the idea of a massive, Washington-based march in support of abortion rights, now the centerpiece of Smeal's strategy.

For those outside NOW, the debate within reflects a larger reality: the anguish over what tactics to use to further feminism in a hostile political climate. Author Betty Friedan, a founder of NOW, calls this "a profound paralysis of the women's movement" and cites the NOW split as one indication of "the truly diversionary power struggles which are draining energy from the task at hand."

The task is a tough one. Attacked from the right, feminists are struggling just to preserve past gains, often secured through militant action, while simultaneously trying to build alliances with those who are often put off by militancy: liberal men and the younger generation of women.

"To me, bringing the younger generation, the have- it-all generation, into the women's movement is a must," Friedan says. "The nostalgia for old marching tunes must end. This is not the time for it." In many ways, it is this feminist conundrum that peaked this summer with Smeal's election, and NOW, like the women's movement itself, is still reeling.

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the scene at the NOW conference in New Orleans this summer was wild. NOW conferences attract the group's activists. Mary Jean Collins, Judy Goldsmith's vice president and an unsuccessful candidate on the Goldsmith slate this year, says: "The people who come to national conferences and the membership are not exactly the same people. At the conferences, it's a lot of really active feminists and they generally come because they are deeply committed to one side or another." Campaigning can become zealous:

A letter circulated at the convention by a NOW board member and Goldsmith supporter accused Smeal of continuing a "mindless and pointless PR campaign" on the Equal Rights Admendment after "all hope of ratification was lost," taking the organization into debt and leaving it without an issue. Smeal says those actions were approved by the board itself.

Smeal supporters said a Goldsmith staffer physically assaulted one of Smeal's close-knit group during the heat of the conference. The Goldsmith staffer denied the charge.

The most serious accusations of campaign misconduct concerned the balloting. Smeal and her staff said they were unable to obtain an official ballot or sample before the election. In their view, that gave Goldsmith an unfair advantage. Voting was by number, not name, and computerized. NOW printed an official sample ballot on light blue paper and both presidential camps also distributed sample ballots. The Goldsmith-Collins sample was printed on bright yellow paper and marked as a piece of campaign literature.

The Smeal sample was another story. It was printed on light blue paper, like the official NOW sample. But on the Smeal sample, the names of Goldsmith and Sonia Johnson, for president, and Mary Jean Collins and Priscilla Moree, for vice president, were reversed. If the Smeal sample were used as a guide, a vote for Goldsmith was really a vote for Johnson and vice versa.

Patricia Ireland, Smeal's campaign manager who made up this sample and regarded the problem as a "clerical error," said, "it was clearly marked as a Smeal campaign ballot." In fact it was marked only with the word "sample."

Many Goldsmith supporters say the mix-up had little effect on the actual vote count, which Smeal won by 136 votes, 839 to 703. To its credit, the Smeaign moved to stop the voting, offered to count Johnson's votes as Goldsmith's -- Johnson did not agree to that -- and went out into the French Quarter to look for delegates for a revote. The ballot fiasco created long lines and forced revoting to continue until 6 a.m. Most of those who revoted supported Smeal, however, so it is unlikely that they had mixed up their votes.

Goldsmith supporters still argue that the sample could have adversely affected undecided later voters. Gayle Brooks, Connecticut state coordinator, maintains some may have given up. "You had to wait in line for hours and hours and hours to vote because of it," she says. Goldsmith said, "It strains credibility to suggest that it was a completely innocent error."

Smeal and Goldsmith supporters carried the fight back to Washington and the national NOW office. Smeal gave Goldsmith's staffers two weeks' notice, but they considered her tactic of putting termination letters in their phone message boxes unnecessarily cold. Smeal then offered to interview anyone who wanted to be rehired. Few did.

The final days of the Goldsmith administration seem like a grim Nixon White House in miniature. The Goldsmith supporters on staff circulated a flurry of interoffice memos to Smeal accusing her of all manner of wrongdoing, from employing an autocratic, top-down management style to being too dependent on male consultants.

It was easy to see times were tough at NOW when Lois Reckitt, NOW's new executive vice president working for Smeal, felt the need to bring friends to stay with her at the office for what she calls "moral support." In the eyes of some Goldsmith people, the friends were "bodyguards." Confusion arose over whether NOW would give the Goldsmith staff severance pay, which Smeal believed would violate NOW board recommendations. Goldsmith had kept on Smeal's entire staff previously so a total staff changeover like this one had not occurred recently. Smeal decided to bring in her own attorney, Mitchell Rogovin, a former special counsel to the CIA. Some staff and outgoing officers considered a heavyweight lawyer like Rogovin "massive overkill" and soon everyone was bringing in attorneys.

"We joked about how from now on we'd need two seats for everyone at the board meetings," one former NOW officer said, "one for each board member and one for each of their attorneys."

THE REALLY IMPORTANT debate between Eleanor Smeal and Judy Goldsmith was -- and is -- not over the election or the transition, but over the tactics NOW, and by example, the women's movement, should use in the coming months to breathe new life into feminism. This becomes a question of how best to use resources. Both women are critical of the way NOW resources have been used in the past.

Goldsmith argues that Smeal placed too much faith in the Equal Right Amendment. When the amendment failed because only 35 states ratified it, NOW, she says, was left with an "issues vacuum" and very little money. "This is not a matter of blame," Goldsmith says. "It was an organization decision to pursue the ERA as intensively as we did. But it is then foolhardy to try to deny that the financial realities we faced in 1982 (when Smeal left) were bad."

Goldsmith's supporters believed she was pulling NOW out of a nose dive by making it a "multi-issue organization" again and by building an increasingly large base of new, younger members while seeking funding beyond direct mail. "1984 was the best year for recruitment of new members in NOW's history," Goldsmith says proudly, "90,000 in that year alone."

Smeal maintains that NOW always has been a multi-issue group and that the ERA campaigns allowed it to grow to its biggest membership ever. The size of the membership list has been a constantly contested figure. "ERA left us with the ability to drop a piece of mail and gross $500,000 on it," Smeal says. "I believe what I left was an organization that when you said 'NOW,' people knew what it was . . . that it was the largest feminist organization in the world."

She and her supporters, in turn, believe this changed during Goldsmith's tenure as NOW became close to the Democratic Party. "In the feminist constituency," she says, there's a credibility gap with the Democrats. The feminists don't believe the Democrats are "that much better" than the Republicans. As a result, Smeal argues, older NOW activists were leaving the organization, membership was dropping and NOW was going further into debt.

Under both Smeal's and Goldsmith's leadership, NOW's debt increased. Under both, the total membership list -- members and contributors -- remained about the same. According to NOW's internal figures as of August this year, when Goldsmith's term ended, NOW had 152,000 paid members and 68,000 contbutors. When Smeal left in 1982, there were 180,000 paid members and 40,000 contributors.

The NOW members who elected her clearly agreed with Smeal's view of history and her commitment to "raising hell" in the future. They rejected Goldsmith's more pragmatic program, which would have focused NOW priorities on grassroots chapter development that hopefully would lead the organization to an increasingly powerful role in local, state and national electoral politics. Kim Gandy, a Smeal supporter and board member, probably spoke for many when she said, "We're not the League of Women Voters . . . NOW is the organization that is out there on the cutting edge, pushing a little farther, and the other groups are sort of coming along behind us catching up."

To Goldsmith's camp, this reasoning smacks of arrogance and nostalgia. Lisa Lederer, who worked for both Smeal and Goldsmith, said, "Ellie has attracted an aging core of supporters . . . I think she can remobilize those people but, ultimately, I'm not sure what it accomplishes. It didn't get us the ERA."

For her part, Smeal has committed NOW to the role of an independent outsider, pushing both parties on feminist issues. "That doesn't mean you don't do some things from inside," she explains. "But I think that if you say, 'I'm really an inside player and this is going to marginalize us,' I don't agree with that for a minute. We can't be confused where our role is at this stage because we are shaping the whole course of the discussion of key issues for the next 10 years."

Smeal is correct. The fundamental difference in political approach raised by both her and Goldsmith will be debated in the women's movement for at least a decade.

As for Goldsmith, when she first lost the election, she told the media she would either "run for Congress" or "open a piano bar." Instead, she is on the speaker circuit, "because I can still talk about the issues and that is important to me." As for the piano bar? "You can catch me at the Bread Oven," she laughs.