AIDS activists, who say the Bush administration has done too little to fight the deadly disease, engaged in a protest yesterday that underscored their anger and frustration.

As an afternoon downpour began, protesters sprinkled cremated remains of people who had AIDS inside the White House gate. But the action lost some of its symbolic clout because President Bush had departed several hours earlier for the debate in St. Louis.

"This was my friend Bruce Morse, who died three years ago," Bonnie Burke, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said after laying flowers and white ashes from a small box just inside the White House fence opposite Lafayette Park. Police officers on both sides of the fence took no action against Burke, who was surrounded by several hundred peaceful protesters.

Emotions ran higher on the opposite side of the White House, near the Ellipse, where scores of AIDS activists marched toward the south fence. Mounted U.S. Park Police pushed them back across E Street to the Mall, although a few managed to fling ashes and fake blood against the fence.

Some chanted, "Hate is not a family value." Others carried alarm clocks and chanted, "When will the White House wake up?" A police officer on the scene said there were no arrests.

The demonstrators had spent the weekend viewing the 15-acre AIDS Quilt, inscribed with the names of people who have died as a result of the disease. The group ACT-UP plans a demonstration at noon today in which activists will link hands around the White House.

Despite the gravity of its purpose, yesterday's demonstration at the White House sometimes had a festive air. A gay men's a cappella group sang the theme songs from "The Brady Bunch," "Gilligan's Island" and other 1960s television shows. Protesters mixed politics and humor in their chants, such as, "We're here, we're queer, we'll paint the house pink."

Many wore buttons supporting Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton. Jim Patterson, 36, of San Francisco, said he believes that Clinton would devote more money to AIDS research and less to military and foreign spending. "I feel for the people in Somalia," Patterson said. "But come on, let's open the back door and look at what's happening in our own yard."

His companion, Bobby Baxter, 31, has had AIDS for eight years. He travels to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda every three months for treatments that include the drugs AZT and interferon, he said, and he timed this visit to coincide with the showing of the Quilt.

"I wanted Jim to see the Quilt" and to participate in Saturday night's candlelight march, Baxter said. He said he sometimes is turned off by ACT-UP's publicity-seeking protests, but also feels that the United States is doing too little to combat AIDS.

"I've lost 25 close friends" to the disease, he said.