The crowd of about 500 white Rhodesians, ardent admirers of their former prime minister, Ian Smith, had grown a bit testy after listening patiently for more than an hour to political speeches at the Rhodesian Front rally.

They had not quite received the answer they want to their key question: Would the white-led military lead a coup if a Marxist government was elected in the British-run elections this month?

Then a 20-year-old member of the all-white Rhodesian Light Infantry struggled to his feet on crutches and said the words that for one brief moment made the world seem safe for the dwindling minority that is the white Rhodesian.

"I wouldn't sit back and discount" the Army, Richard Le Vieux, who had been wounded in the leg and head, told the audience. "We're much stronger than the Patriotic Front" guerrillas who fought the military in the seven-year war.

"We're still here and we're still prepared to fight," the infantryman added before the crowd drowned him out with whistles, cheers and applause.

The chairman decided that his was a "wonderful note" on which to end Monday's meeting in a white suburb of Salisbury. Smith and former justice minister Chris Anderson, who had simply replied "wait and see" to a question about the possiblility of a coup, warmly applauded Le Vieux and shook hands with him after the meeting.

They left little doubt what they expect the military to do if Robert Mugabe, a self-proclaimed Marxist and coleader of the guerrilla forces, is elected. Forgotten were the earlier moderate words of former finance minister David Smith, who told the audience that white strategy of the 1980s is "to win by persuasion rather than confrontation."

Under the terms of a peace agreement signed in London late last year, the whites will be allowed to fill 20 seats in the 100-member Parliament they vote for Thursday. The black forces will choose the other 80 delegates in elections scheduled for Feb. 27 to 29.

The Rhodesian Front, headed by Smith, has already filled a majority of the white seats by default and there is little question it will sweep the rest of 20 seats. The party has dominated the country's politics for almost two decades until Smith had to give way to the black-led government of Bishop Abel Muzorewa last year.

The Rhodesian Front is only facing opposition in six of the contests, with its other 14 candidates unopposed and already declared elected. So confident is Smith that he flew to the United States today, for an unofficial visit, not even waiting for the results in this southern district where he faces token opposition from two candidiates.

The best-known opposition candidate, independent Nick McNally, leader of the National Unifying Force party, which has long fought a losing battle against Smith, openly admits that he is unlikely to win more than 20 percent of the vote.

Another anti-Rhodesian Front candidate has been in and out of mental institutions for years. As one frustrated opponent of the front said, "You have to be crazy to oppose Smith in this country. You just lose your deposit of $150 for failing to gain 20 percent of the winner's vote."

At one point some of the nine black parties competing in the election had considered putting up white candidates. They all backed away, however, possibly fearing they would hurt their cause among African voters and also because they found it difficult to find whites to oppose the Smith machine.

Although Smith has been out of the limelight, he was in vintage form in three rallies in the countryside and Salisbury during the weekend.

He heaped his usual scorn on what he regards as his bogeymen: Britain, the United States, and the communists -- Soviet or African. The man who led his country to illegal independence from Britain in 1965 and eventually took the country into a bloody seven-year guerrilla war had blame for everybody but himself and white Rhodesians.

He blamed Britain for "landing us in this position" of having to give up power to the blacks and said both Britain and the United States were "immoral" for giving into pressure from African "radical" states "even though [the Africans] were wrong and we were right."

"There are all sorts of odd politicians in this world, but I think the members of the British Foreign Office are the oddest," he said amid laughter from his reporters.

Commenting on President Carter, Smith simply sighed and said, "when Carter came in that was the end" of chances to work out an agreement under the terms negotiated by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in 1976.

Smith made no effort to hide his distaste for "this thing called majority rule," adding that Africans "are embarking on unknown ground. They don't understand one-man, one-vote."

There are differences, however, from Smith in his halcyon days when the whites, who constitute but 3 percent of Rhodesia's population, ran the country as they pleased.

Saying "we are no longer in the drivers' seat," he told his sober, mainly elderly supporters: "We've got to be realistic and face up to the changed situation in which we find ourselves. The old days are gone. I don't want to bluff you, we're going to have change . . . It's going to be tough, ladies and gentlemen."

Nevertheless, he called for confidence in the future, saying the one thing whites had to fend off was a Marxist government that would be "the end" for Rhodesia and southern African and then "God help the free world."

His message to whites, who employ millions of blacks, was "to try to help them make the right decision" so they "don't land up with a Marxist government." That rule, he said, would take away "their cattle, their sheep, their poultry" and even their children.

The place where Smith still has immense influence is the question of whether the whites stay or flee after the election results are known.

One admirer put it simply, going up to Smith after the meeting and saying, "When you go, we go."