BOSTON -- Pat Schroeder stood at the podium in Denver, right above the poster that read, ''She wins, we win.'' Then, for the first time since 1972, when her first campaign for Congress unfolded like the plot of a Frank Capra film, this winner backed away from a fight. No, she wouldn't run for president.

Over the long summer months, Pat Schroeder had her own ''rendezvous with reality.'' She had become, in the words of a Time pollster, the candidate people were most likely to buy a used car from. But she was not the candidate they were most likely to sign a check for. In June she had said, ''No dough, no go.'' In September there was not enough dough.

But it wasn't just money that stumped and stopped the senior woman in Congress. It was the method of presidential politics. ''I could not figure out how to run, and not be separated from those I serve. There must be a way, but I could not figure it out.''

This is part of the complexity and the humanity, the weakness and the strength of this woman from Colorado. From the beginning of her career, she has been saying, ''Wait a minute, there could be a different kind of politics.'' She has expressed that difference in many ways, sometimes with independent determination, other times with a flip quirkiness that has won her the label ''flaky.''.

A Phi Beta Kappa and lawyer, she still signs letters with a smiley face in her signature. A dogged member of the Armed Services Committee, she once dressed as an Easter bunny to amuse children abroad. All along, she has consciously tried to play in the same league as the big boys without becoming one of the boys.

As a politician, Schroeder has a recognizably, deliberately female style. Her metaphors are those of pots and pans -- ''the Teflon presidency'' -- rather than Astroturf. When asked why she runs ''as a woman,'' she fires back, ''What choice do I have?'' She draws strength from women and sees them as her ''other'' constituents. Indeed, she shares with many successful women of her generation a special ambivalence: a desire to make it to the top and a deep concern about ''how'' you make it.

''Pat has the dilemma of the insider/outsider, '' says one of her longtime aides. ''The insider knows how things are done. The outsider says, 'goddamit, why?' " The insider knew that the candidate for president inevitably becomes isolated from people, traveling in an airborne cocoon. The outsider wanted to reach the top only if she could do it by her grass roots.

The kind of campaign Schroeder prefers is kaffeeklatches and pressing flesh and sharing ideas. This people politician said with real pain, ''I could not bear to turn every human contact into a photo opportunity. I would shrivel.''

But what she longs for doesn't exist in presidential politics. It may be our loss, but presidential politics is about strategy and organization as much as ideas and character and caring. It's about television studios and staff meetings and speech writers. Schroeder couldn't figure out how to do all that her way.

She couldn't be herself, as she defines it, and be a successful candidate. After all, most cannot imagine the leader of the Western World signing letters with smiley faces. Nor can we envision the president of the United States crying in public at personal disappointment. Schroeder's tears were not the sort that drown other women's aspirations. They were a human emotional response to an emotional moment. But they were also the tears of someone who was announcing -- admitting? -- she was not in the running for president.

During her noncampaign, ''I learned a lot about . . . Pat Schroeder.'' I am sure of that. So did the rest of us. We saw a woman whose identity is created out of what other people see as contradictions. We saw a straight-talker with humor and humanity. The campaign will be a lot less interesting without her.

But when her fans were chanting ''run, Pat, run,'' she kept her head on straight. Maybe one of the other things she learned is that not everybody -- male or female -- can be packaged for the presidency. "