CARL WAGNER SITS BACK in his chair, presses his fingertips together and speaks softly: "This is a gambler's town," says the man who helped run Edward Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign. "It's like Vegas. Ever been to Vegas? You ask someone how he's doing and he says, 'Fine, fine.' You say, 'How's it going?' They say, 'Oh, it's going great.' Doesn't matter how much money they might have lost. Ever notice? That's the way it is in this town. They always say it's going great."

Every four years, the great tide of political ambition and possible glory turns them up -- the men who take charge of the business of getting a candidate elected president of the United States. They seem to come from nowhere, serving obscure apprenticeships among the envelope-stuffers and door-to- door canvasers on the lower rungs of the political ladder, staying backstage and, for the most part, out of sight even when running the campaign itself.

And yet, with a little luck, a great deal of hard work, and the meshing of all the right gears in the intricate machinery of American politics, they can pole-vault to power with stunning speed, transformed by an election- night victory into a senior adviser with influence over policy and the shaping of critical issues. Think of Hamilton Jordan's shuttle diplomacy during the Iranian hostage crisis; James Baker's role as chief of staff and member of the Reagan troika. But such glory is a long shot; the payoff, perhaps, but not, given all the sacrifices the job entails, the lure.

What, then, makes the campaign managers run?

These are the people responsible for the day-to-day operations of a $20 million juggernaut, and all of them are just a little drunk on the audacity of their own undertaking. It is a young man's game: The current crop, the ones managing the campaigns of the Democratic hopefuls, are between 25 and 40. Most of them cut their political teeth in the McGovern campaign, developing their skills in the congressional and statewide races of the ensuing political seasons.

For the next year and a half, they will divorce themselves from the real world -- spend most of their time on the road or on the phone, miss anniversaries, weekly poker games and the other rituals of ordinary life, put marriages on the line and friendships on hold, and send normality to the firing squad.

What's it like to be in charge of a presidential campaign? Wagner smiles. "It's like living in a Cuisinart."

Not surprisingly, the men who choose to live this life are something of a breed apart -- gamblers all, who like the longshots; wildcatters with a genuine distaste for dailiness and a seemingly insatiable need to prove themselves. In there too is a certain capacity for hero-worship, and not just a willingness, but a need to believe in something, to suspend cynicism and channel their ambition into something that seems bigger and more important than the average dream. The egos are as formidable; a solid self-confidence and a comfortable familiarity with power seem to come in handy as well.

High-octane politics, Wagner calls it; right now, no one's running on empty.

"I've never figured out why some of us put ourselves through this," says Robert G. Beckel, campaign manager for the Mondale effort. "But there's something about an election night. There's a lot of things in life where you don't know whether you accomplished your goals; where there's no definite measurement of your work. In politics you win or you lose -- it's probably the ultimate poker game. I like the strategy. It's like a large war game: You know who your opponent is, what the resources are, how you're going to position yourself against them.

"It's the best and worst of a lot of different lifestyles thrown into one. It consumes you completely and generates so much intensity -- you live a lot more in a campaign. Maybe you're borrowing against the end, I don't know. From February to November, you're on an emotional roller coaster and then it's gone. All that work, all that effort, 10, 12 hours a day, and then everything you are, everything you've done, every bit of psychic energy is then presented to you in one hour and then it's over. Nothing. After that, it's hard to get out of bed everyday and go to Capitol Hill and make a big corporation richer."

Not that Beckel hasn't tried. A Peace Corps veteran who began with McGovern, learned the ropes in the Watergate-spawned congressional races, and headed foreign policy and defense lobbying in the Carter White House, Beckel decided it was time for a rest after running Carter's Texas operation against Reagan, an experience he likens to "going up against the Nimitz in a row boat."

After it was over, Beckel bought a house on a hill in Austin overlooking the river. In three weeks he was doing media for the incumbent mayor's race. "I knew it was time to come back," he says. "The Potomac River waters started looking a lot better than the Rio Grande."

Beckel had no better luck in avoiding politics this time around. "At first I said I wasn't interested in anything full time this time," he says. "I had the year all figured out. I was going to represent NBC (as a lobbyist). I was going to be a fellow at the Roosevelt Center. I was going to think a little bit, volunteer for the campaign a little, play golf.

"And then I went skiing in Colorado. I was on top of a mountain contemplating the beautiful scene, and then it started creeping in. I thought, 'What's it going to be like in a year, when everyone's involved in a campaign and you're not and the campaigns are all heated up and you're not there?' That was it. I had the future all planned on the chairlift, and by the end of the run, I was on the phone, saying, 'How can I help?' "

"What act of mashochism brought me here?" says Joseph Grandmaison, John Glenn's national political director. "I had a nice home in New Hampshire. I watched the waves roll in and out. I spent most of last summer working on my tan."

Grandmaison's first taste of presidential politics came in the McGovern campaign. Since then he has worked in a plethora of congressional and gubernatorial campaigns and ran unsuccessfully for Congress himself in New Hampshire in 1976. "You do one campaign, and then your second, and then your third," he says. "After awhile, you want that excitement, you need that excitement on a personal basis. Most jobs are boring, whether you like it or not."

And that is a large part of the appeal: a campaign is a sustained end run around the slow-plodding path through the frustrating maze of most careers. It is a streamlined trip to the heart of the matter.

"A campaign is a living, breathing thing," says Grandmaison. "You have to aim it at the right thing. You can't run it like a business. It's not a business. There's no greater learning process for a young person than getting involved in a campaign. There's no situation where you can gain so much authority and responsibility so quickly. You could be in a business 10 years and never get this experience."

Grandmaison looks at the map of the United States hung on the wall of his office, the same one they all seem to have, the focus for a thousand dreams and possible disasters, the prize. "You say to someone, 'You think this is what we should do in Iowa? Okay, go ahead and do it.' There's no bureaucracy. You get capable people who believe in what they're doing."

"I have a reputation of expecting a great deal," says the man who put his fist through the wall while managing Michael Dukakis' campaign for governor of Massachusetts. "But I push myself really hard. People want to be pushed hard; otherwise you might as well work for Prudential Life Insurance. You take pride in what your doing, in the process. You ask yourself, have you performed well?"

Joe Grandmaison's father was Nashua City chairman for ign.John W. King when King won the New Hampshire governorship in 1962, and he remembers King coming to pick his father up at 5:30 in the morning to stand at the factory gates. "After he won, I remember walking down Main Street with my Dad about 1 a.m. to deliver a picture of King to the newspaper.

"Joe," he said, "I just helped elect a governor!" Politics, it seems, runs in the family: now, Grandmaison's brother Phil is in charge of the New Hampshire operation for the Cranston campaign. "I called him the other day and his wife told me he was sleeping," Grandmaison recalls. "I heard him yell, 'Don't tell him that! Tell him I just leafleted Nashua for the second time today!' "

They revel in the contest, the chance to go up against the others, against themselves. Their self-confidence borders on arrogance. What makes them think they're the ones to turn a man's presidential dreams into reality? "(Someone can say that) I'm not the best person for the job, but I'm going to prove I'm the best person," says Billy Keyserling, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings campaign "creator" as he calls himself, whose soft-spoken Southern accent belies his unwavering intensity. "How many of us get the chance to do something like this?"

Keyserling organized voter registration drives among high school students after graduating from Brandeis University in 1971. He worked in Robert Drinan's congressional campaigns in 1970 and '72 and was South Carolina director for George McGovern's presidential campaign. Keyserling first hooked up with Fritz Hollings in 1970 when he worked for the senator as a summer intern. He became a staff aide to Hollings in 1974 and again in 1978 and ran Hollings' 1980 reelection campaign.

Keyserling left Washington several years ago to run his own public relations firm in South Carolina. He likes his outsider status and thinks it gives him a fresh perspective on the sweepstakes. "Running a campaign is like going on a diet. You don't think about losing 105 pounds," he says, having once lost exactly that. "You think about losing one pound at a time. Same thing here. If I looked around and started thinking about the fund raising, the staff hiring, I would say, 'Oh my God. . . .' "

Keyserling describes himself as "a problem solver. I love organization. I'm not a spokesman. I'm a nice guy, too nice perhaps. My life's ambition, if I weren't doing this, would be to be the guy Johnson and Johnson calls on to deal with an Extra Strength Tylenol problem. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, like a political campaign. A situation where you have to perform. The juices have to flow and you have to have the vision."

Right now, it is very early, too soon for the strain to tell, no bruises yet on the beating hearts or the butting heads. Right now, they can each take the numbers and toss them in the air and show you exactly how they prove that it is their man who can and will win this thing.

This is time for nuts and bolts; hiring the staff, beginning the intricate courtships with possible supporters, meeting with the experts on fund raising, polling, and the other facets of their trade which is also their passion and their life. Too soon to say exactly what the sacrifices will be, what price will be demanded, what sort of men they will be on the other end of the wind tunnel. They talk unconvincingly of how important it is to remember that they will still have a life to live after the campaign is over.

They also talk about pacing, about taking time off, about saving themselves for the home stretch. They speak, some ruefully, others perfunctorily, of the friends they won't see, the tennis they won't play. What personal lives they had are on ice for the time being, although it is difficult to tell whether that means for the length of the campaignnor the duration of their interest in politics. Perhaps it is a measure of just how much politics has meant to their lives that only two of the six men interviewed for this story are married. "I cannot imagine how you do it, if you're married," says Grandmaison.

William Shore, who, at 28, is Gary Hart's deputy campaign manager, will be one of the ones to find out. (Jim Krog of the Askew campaign is the other.) Shore lives in Gaithersburg with his wife, Bonnie, and an English sheep dog. He gets up at 5 a.m., and he's in the office by 6:30; usually he works until 8 or 9 at night. He works weekends too. No, he shrugs, he does not think the campaign will have a negative effect on his marriage. "So far, it hasn't been detrimental," he says. "I'd be more worried if I were gone a lot."

"It's a presumptuous thing to do," he says of his job. "The easiest place in the world to be second-guessed." Shore came to work for Hart shortly after graduating from college; this is the first campaign in which he has done more than "help out." Clean cut and soft spoken, there are no barnacles on Billy Shore, no rueful grins, no war stories. Not yet. "I'm confident. I sleep well," he smiles. "I sleep like a baby."

Some of the others speak with more reservation. "It's very tough," says Beckel. "Campaigns can be very destructive. It can be the ultimate team effort. You're all thrown together on this ride and it's a long one, a dangerous one, and an emotional one. You become so close, you give each other sustenance. You have to. Campaigns have cost me two of the best women I ever met in my life. You have to pick and choose. That's why there is such an intense camaraderie. No one else can quite understand it. So your friends are political people, your lovers are political people, it becomes a lifestyle as well as a vocation. I haven't seen a movie in three months, and I used to be a junkie. Still, at cocktail parties, people talk about how fascinating presidential politics are and I think, well, 'I do that.' "

They were blooded in the McGovern campaign, christened by the times. Keyserling, Beckel and Grandmaison all seem stained by the legacy of that passionate, chaotic era, invested with a sense of mission and the remnants of an outsider status even now that they are in the mainstream of the Democratic party.

Joe Grandmaison remembers that time in terms of one man, George McGovern: "I guess I'm supposed to say it was because of the war," he says, "but it was more than that. I'm not sure that I ever met a finer human being in my life, very sensitive, very giving, very special. I guess I'm kind of a romantic in terms of politics, but if I became cynical, I'd find another way to earn a living. I think most people want someone to believe in. And I believe very much in the process. Though I might disagree with the choice, I believe in the motives, that by election day, the difference between winning and losing is motivated by the right reasons."

"All of us saw fit, particularly those of us subjected to the draft, to realize that politics played an important part in your life," says Bob Beckel. "It sensitized me more than anything else could. I wonder, though, where the next generation is coming from -- someone's got to be out there.

"Sometimes what we do seems a little cynical I suppose -- gauging mood and tactics -- but you have to go out with the candidate to big towns and small towns to understand what an incredibly diverse, fun-loving group of people this country is. There's a dynamic that develops there. You're out there with people who really care, and they're a hell of a lot smarter than people give them credit for. The political process sends to Washington pretty damn good people; not power-hungry crooks."

Sergio Bendixen, Alan Cranston's campaign manager, came of age in the aftermath of Watergate. "I was at a stage of my life when I didn't know what I wanted or where I wanted to go and it seemed a way to pass the time," he says now, looking back from the vantage point of 32. The Democratic party looked wide open to him then. Women, young people and minorities were all clamoring for their fair share of attention and Bendixen was intrigued.

Half Norwegian, half Peruvian, Bendixen moved to Miami when he was 12 years old, and graduated from college with a degree in chemical engineering. He organized Dade County for McGovern in 1972, ("If you can figure out Dade County," he says now, "the rest of the country is simple.") and worked with a Cuban-Jewish community group organizing everything from debutante balls to soccer games to their quest for zoning approval for a country club. Two years later, at the age of 24, he was the youngest member of the Democratic National Committee. "Here I was, very young, and not even born in this country, and I had this tremendous input," he says now. "It's hard to feel cynical about the system after that."

Bendixen worked Dade County for Carter in 1976. The fit wasn't right, philosophically, and in 1980 he organized Florida for Kennedy. He professes the least sentimental attitude toward the profession he pursues. "Politics is a lot like chemical engineering," he says matter-of-factly. "Both have a lot to do with numbers. I've learned that the way you can learn a campaign is to break it down into its elements -- the message, the candidate, the fund raising, the media, the organization, the staff. Campaigns used to be more of an art. Now they're more a matter of polling -- machines. It almost takes an engineer to figure it out. Strategy and execution is three-quarters of it."

And the rest? The rest, says Bendixen, echoing Jimmy Breslin, "is blue smoke and mirrors."

Each of them is captivated to some extent by a sense of mission, and the lingering mystique that their profession holds for them. They are ambivalent on the subject of their own ambition. Theirs after all is an ambiguous role, resonant with the power inherent in running a high-visibility operation on a national scale, and yet remaining always backstage.

Some of them have toyed with the idea of running for office themselves; Grandmaison did run for Congress in 1976 and lost. "The more I see what a candidate has to do to get elected," says Beckel, "the less tempted I am. They're so exposed; we tend to want our privacy. The notion of getting out there and smiling all the time . . . campaign managers get to yell a lot."

"Being a campaign manager is one of the most self-revealing exercises," says Beckel. "You see if you're the right stuff. It tests your endurance, your intelligence, your ability as a campaign professional, your sense of humor. Come out of this, and you could run a corporation. It makes you grow in a lot of ways. Because it's such a phenomenal exercise. You're on an incredibly important mission for the country. You hear a thousand stories, you meet wonderful characters.

"But you have to love your candidate. You have to have faith in your candidate, to be loyal as hell. You have to want the guy to win. You don't do it for the laughs. Some people do it to get in the White House: I've been there. But anybody who says that i's not part of it, is telling a half-truth."

Sooner or later, it's got to be the last campaign, before the adrenalin gets to the brain and it becomes a case of being all amped up with nowhere to go. Sooner or later it is time to make an acquaintance with the vines and tendrils of an ordinary life before the cheap thrills of one lived wholly in the moment make anything else inconceivable.

This is a problem of recent vintage: before the advent of the endless campaign year, it was possible to keep politics an avocation, one that spiced the rest of one's life without becoming a kind of kudzu that covered everything in its path. But this one, they say, because it is the big one, their first and, in all likelihood, their only crack at running a presidential campaign, may in fact be the last one. "This one has more of a likelihood of liberating all of us from whatever it is that keeps us so captive," says Billy Keyserling.

Beckel says that this will be his last campaign. Those who know him laugh when they hear this. Still, he says, "I will never again manage a race. I wouldn't do it. This is the ultimate test of how good a campaign person you are. It's the climax of a long road we've been coming down, for (Mondale) and for me.

"I guess you're always looking for the last one. Nothing else is going to be as good as this or as hard as this or as satisfying. After this ride, it's over. You've got to get off. It's tough, though," says Beckel. "I don't know what the hell you do for an encore."