THIS TIME four years ago, it was different. The hills were alive and the plains overrun with Democratic candidates. Although voting in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the first two big events in the 1988 presidential campaign, were 12 months off, the activity was frantic. In both states today, it is bleak and lonely.

These thoughts were prompted by a letter from a transplanted New Englander named Dick Levine, who was musing about one of the first ladies of the New Hampshire Democratic primaries, Dudley Dudley of Durham.

He pictures her today, he says, with her husband and daughter Morgan, "sitting around their cast metal stove, protected from the bitter temperature, the snow and the winds outside, but abandoned. Who is there to greet these taciturn often grumpy workers at 6 a.m. at the shipyard gates? What's the incentive to shovel the driveways in the early evening? What's to be done with a dead telephone tree? Where are the Mondales, the Babbitts and the Fred Harrises? . . . Will the swallows come back to Manchester? "

It's the same story in Iowa. Ed Campbell, former state chairman (his wife Bonnie held the office too) bemoans the quiet.

"We're having a political depression out here. Four years ago, the hotels were booked solid, the car rentals were sold out and reporters from big papers had year-long leases in our condo. The phone company was swamped, the restaurants were packed. In the Savery Bar, you couldn't move. In '87 and '88, the caucuses brought between $25 million and $40 million into the state's economy."

Dudley Dudley can recall heady moments from 20 years of backing losers, from Gene McCarthy in '68 through Dick Gephardt in '88. There was that wonderful time in '80 when Jimmy Carter, in a last-ditch effort to lure her from Ted Kennedy, offered her a seat on the Intercoastal Boundary Commission -- and she proudly refused.

Hot pursuit was the order of the day in both states in the heyday of the early-starting campaign. The former Granite State Democratic chairman, Joseph Grandmaison, repeats a story, which might be apocryphal, about his predecessor, George Bruno, who in 1988 took his wife to the hospital for the birth of their child and got three calls from candidate Paul Simon before the baby was born.

The most famous Iowa courtship of l988 was chronicled by Paul Taylor, first in The Washington Post, then in his book, "See How they Run."

A 54-year-old Cedar Rapids social worker named Connie Clark, was being wooed by the entire pack: Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden, Al Gore, Simon, Jesse Jackson, Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart. Babbitt had offered her a trip to Arizona; Gephardt, wings to Washington. She had secretly made up her mind, but she did not tip her hand until July. In February, 1987, Gephardt made his big move. Passing through an airport gift shop in New Hampshire, he spotted a ceramic German shepherd and told Taylor he was buying it "for someone I have to have in Iowa, who collects these things."

The dog, a ringer for Connie Clark's beloved, since deceased Molly, was presented at a pancake breakfast and instantly became the prize item in her large collection of china dogs. But that wasn't what won Connie Clark over to Gephardt.

"I really believed Dick Gephardt," she says. "If he runs again, I'll be with him. "

"It's kind of slow," she sighs of the Iowa winter. "I like {Mario} Cuomo, I'm not sure he's electable. I don't think New York is a big plus, or being a governor, but I could support him."

And, if asked, she would help him, in the pleasant Iowa way, as she has helped every candidate who ever came to her house -- and most of them have.

New Hampshire, where the spoiled voters are also used to house calls, has had to make do with a couple of visits from Virginia's governor, Douglas Wilder. The new anti-war star of the Senate, Sam Nunn, almost came but canceled when he heard the buzz of presidential speculation. Wilder let it be known he would be happy to return in February to address the Hundred Club banquet, a big New Hampshire political affair, but the Democrats decided it would be better to have public television's Hodding Carter instead.

Dudley Dudley misses the excitement but thinks it's "appropriate" to curtail the previously eternal primary season.

Bonnie Campbell in Iowa, who got elected attorney general last November, thinks the absences and the silences are due to a universal preoccupation with the Persian Gulf, a need to see how the hostilities -- and the recession -- shake out politically for Bush.

"I think people see a fragile economy and the country on the brink of international disaster, and they have no idea what politics would be successful. I can't imagine, though, that George Bush won't be challenged."

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.