Even the backstage jitters had a historic theme last week at the National History Day competition in College Park.

Waiting for their chance to impress judges, three D.C. elementary students switched from cramming for their original skit on "The President and the Press," to an extemporaneous presidential rap:

"My name's Jeffie, I'm number three, that's why everybody looks up to me . . . . My name's Adams, I'm number two, I'll bust you, and I'll bust you, too . . . . I am Nixon, I'm real cool, but everyone else thinks I'm a fool . . . . "

The humor worked for sixth-grade buddies Paul Resnikoff, 11, Dicran Jamgochian, 12, and Matthew Rist, 12, who stepped into the spotlight to win first prize in junior group performance category.

The boys presented a skit they had spent seven months writing. They used quotations from politicians taken from videotapes, speeches, biographies and periodicals.

The presentation depicted politicians and their confrontations with the press, beginning with the Alien and Sedition acts of 1798, and ending with the recent Gary Hart media splash.

"We researched at each others' house every day after school," Paul said.

The three, from Murch Elementary School in Northwest Washington, were the only area students chosen for a first, second or third prize in the 14 categories that range from table-top exhibits to multimedia presentations.

The competition at the University of Maryland last week included 1,750 students from 44 states.

Other area students who scored well were Edward Dean, also a sixth grader at Murch, who won a certificate of excellence for a paper on the Florida conquest. Michael Lessin of Haycock Elementary in Falls Church won a special oral history award for his multimedia presentation, "The Rights and Responsibilities of a Newscaster."

National History Day originated in 1974 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland with 129 participants.

It has evolved into a national contest with more than 200,000 applicants each year.

The first-, second- and third-place winners in each category at the national finals are awarded $1,000, $500 and $200.

The highest overall scorer wins a four-year scholarship to Case Western Reserve.

Scores are based on how well students know their subjects, and how they relate to an annual theme. This year's theme was "Liberty: Rights and Responsibilities in American History."

The exhibit halls were full of nervous energy as students prepared for their big moment in front of judges and tried to cope with last-minute hitches.

While waiting their turns to perform a skit on the Holocaust, students from Wyoming Valley West High School in Plymouth, Pa., found that someone had made off with the World War II army helmet. Parents were hastily dispatched to a local K mart to purchase another.

Christy Flora, 17, bathed in red light, portrayed a riveting Adolf Hitler. She said she worked at adopting his mannerisms to project the energy that comes across in his newsreels. "Nobody has any idea how {scary} Hitler was, so we watched movies, and I just studied it and studied it."

Based on an interview with Alfred Stern, a concentration camp survivor, Faye Jacob, 16, and Patti Austin, 16, countered Hitler's speeches with performances as Jews being ousted from their homes in Germany and placed in camps.

"It was painful for us, we actually felt guilty asking him {questions}," Jacob said. "He told us no movie could express how he felt."

While performances were being judged, rooms elsewhere contained table-top renderings of American scenes such as rural America, the Trail of Tears, Brown v. Board of Education and nuclear energy.

Just beyond "Death Row" was a remembrance of the 232 men of Lakeside County, Ind., who died in Vietnam.

On a table sat a camouflage combat helmet with an ace of diamonds playing card tucked in the band. The helmet bore ballpoint doodles of the Roadrunner and other symbols significant to its owner, and his friends. Nearby were a letter jacket and a purple heart. White gloves rested upon a folded flag. All were part of an exhibit created by students at Lakeside High School.

A panel contained photographs of young men in combat, and letters from sons to mothers. Frederick B. King, who served in Vietnam at the age of 19, wrote:

"I believe I will come back alive. I just want to be sure that I'm ready to go in case God calls for me . . . . If I do get killed I want my body shipped home . . . . "

King died when he hit a land mine.

"I learned how the family felt losing a son in battle, how the individual felt before losing his life," said Ursula Belcher, 17, one of the Lakeside students involved in the project.