IN THE PRESS ROOM AT Manhattan's Jacob Javits Convention Center, the reporters sit elbow to elbow, more than 100 of them ready to record the latest skirmish in the march to the White House. Closed- circuit television monitors protrude from each corner of the cavernous bunker. All reportorial eyes are fixed on the shimmering screens as the Democratic hopefuls adjust mikes and straighten ties for their opening parries in another of the campaign's great debates.

For the reporters, the crisis arrives without warning.

The monitors flicker and the ethereal images of would-be presidents dissolve quickly into flurries of fuzz. Busy fingers freeze above lap-top computers known to the campaign cognoscenti as -- no comment on their output, of course -- Trash Eighties.

Jee-zuz, groan the lords and ladies of the media. Do they expect us to do this without television?

The New York Times nervously eyes The Washington Post. The Chicago Tribune waits for a first move from The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Arizona Republic glances from heavy hitter to heavy hitter.

"Up-links! Up-links!" cries The Boston Globe.

The countdown to this media event, sponsored by the Democratic Party of New York, has moved ominously inside the one-minute mark. A party worker, blond and harried, edges defensively through the crowded room. "We are experiencing technical difficulties," says The Party Worker. "We may have to move you into the other room." The Party Worker senses hostility. "It's only 70 feet away."

The other room? But that's where the candidates are. Live. Or as live as they can get, plastered with embalmer-like pancake makeup, wired into blue chairs and given 30 seconds to unravel the federal budget. The audio level on the media's groan rises perilously. The reporters don't want flesh and blood. They want the monitors with the same video images their readers will see. Is Gephardt too hot? Dukakis too cold? Does Babbitt's mouth still move out of sync with the rest of his face? This is crucial. This is real.

In the middle of the room, The Columnist sits smiling and unflustered. Squat, round and balding, a man whose perpetually twinkling eyes make him look like a benevolent gnome, Jack Germond produces a self-described "inside baseball" syndicated political column with his partner, Jules Witcover. He has been covering the campaign trail for almost three decades. You would not want to engage him in a game of political Trivial Pursuit. You would lose on the Republican chairman of Skamania County.

Germond's smile widens. The scene reminds him of a similar event 20 years ago. Richard Nixon is holding a televised town meeting in Nashua, N.H. He has provided an adjoining room for the media and kindly set up television sets for the reporters to monitor the momentous event. But Nixon has locked the media in the press room -- and out of the town meeting -- so as to maintain the event's natural decorum. Or so he says. The reporters suspect more insidious reasons. They are very unhappy about being isolated from the real thing; one is so angry he is bashing at the locked doors. Wham! "Let us outta here, goddam it!" Wham! "What the {bleep} you got to hide, Nixon!?"

In the Jacob Javits Convention Center, a few reporters are edging uncertainly toward the open door. The clock is ticking. The Party Worker's pleas are downright urgent. Seventy feet away the introductions are beginning.

The Boston Globe refuses to budge. Its political reporter, Thomas Newton Oliphant, is a natural-born leader. "I'll take my chances on the monitors," The Globe's man announces with firmness. "Reality is everything."

Oliphant's decisiveness turns the tide. The Times, The Post, The Trib and The Inquirer stop eyeing one another. The Republic confidently sits back down in her seat.

How times change.

On the monitors, as if by magic, the fuzz re-creates itself into reality. From the screens the debate's moderator is grilling the Democrats: "Who, on this stage, can win in November?" This is a tough question, and reality wavers, not knowing precisely where to focus for the answer. Then an off-camera, disconnected voice replies: "I shaved him this mornin'." Quickly, the zoom moves in on Jesse Jackson.

A chuckle rustles through the press room. Fingers are once again clattering at Trash Eighties. Campaign '88 is back to normal.