From the back of the hall, after Pennsylvania ended what little suspense was left, a chant came from the North Carolina ranks: "Four more years, four more years."

It was faint, like the debate itself, and it failed to ignite any emotions among the Democrats, either victors or vanquished. Even the winners realized that that particular triumphal cry, which first sprang from another candidate and another party, was singularly inappropriate at that moment at their convention.

What the Democrats did not need were any more reminders of how Richard Nixon had gone on to crush them in 1972 after their party had left a convention bitterly divided. There was enough talk already on the floor, as the delegates mingled before taking their crucial vote, about the lessons learned from a raucous convention and a bitterly divided party.

Long before the roll call that gave Jimmy Carter his victory on the rules -- and assured his renomination -- word had been passed to the Carter forces: cool it. Now is the time for conciliation, not chortles of victory.

On the convention floor, as the opposing Carter-Edward Kennedy forces were preparing for the debate and leader recalled the advice given privately earlier in the day by Hamilton Jordan. The president's chief political strategist had told the assembled Carter floor leaders they should conduct themselves with humility.

They were going to win, Jordan told them and they should win with class. No boos, no catcalls. From this night on, they should think of the future and the fall campaign, not the struggles with the Massachusetts senator that has lasted for eight long months.

That kind of message probably accounted for the tepid nature of most of the Carter floor response as the debate unfolded. But it did not mean the opening hours of the 1980 Democratic National Convention were robbed of drama or emotion.

Twelve speakers were allotted an hour's time to make their cases, pro and con, on the rule that would bind the delegates to the preferences expressed by votes during the primary and caucus state elections.

But only one really drew forth anger and passion. That speaker was the first for the Carter side, and his appearance stirred both history and emotion.

Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut had barely stepped to the podium when the boos began to fill Madison Square Garden. He had been in that spot before -- but on a different side. In 1968, in the acrimonious atmosphere of Chicago, Ribicoff had lashed out at Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. And eight years before that, he had led the fight for young John F. Kennedy as the senator's floor manager.

Now he was contesting against the last of the Kennedy brothers, and, in its way, that evoked the loud expressions of anger.

"The issue we are debating is fairness," he said, his voice rising. "Nineteen million Americans voted in 55 primary and caucus elections. They went to the polls expecting their votes to mean something. They had the right to believe their votes did mean something."

Shouts and jeers began to drown out his words. The noise intensified as he said: "It isn't fair to change the rules now. . . ."

More boos, more catcalls. Many of the Kennedy delegates, who had been models of amiability minutes before, were visibly angry now. They stood and shouted out their boos in such volume that Ribicoff had to stop for the sound to subside.

He continued: "those delegates have a legal and moral obligation to support the candidate. . . ."

The response was louder and angrier.

Then after Ribicoff finished, the emotion seemed spent. What followed drew perfunctory response, both during the remainder of the speeches and the roll call itself.

Few, if any, among the delegates doubted the final outcome, but the arguments raised went to the larger questions about Democratic prospects in November against Ronald Reagan and a revitalized, united Republican Party. The message from the speakers all touched on that point.

Each was saying, in different ways, that only a united Democratic Party -- not a bitterly divided one -- could win this time.

Edward Bennett Williams, the Washington lawyer and former party treasurer, urged the delegates to "open" the convention in the name of unity to ensure a stronger party. George McGovern, the party nominee in 1972, who learned the lessions of disunity then, urged similar action in the name of "tradition and pragmatism."

He urged them to join together "to defeat the new extremism" as represented by Reagan's candidacy.

The Carter side, whether in the words of a South Carolina delegate, Mary Demetrious, or San Francisco's May or Dianne Feinstein, made similar arguments.

The mayor added: "I say to you as a Democrat who worked for John F. and Robert F. Kennedy that we don't change the rules after the game has been played."

That was the strong view of the majority of delegates in their roll-call vote. But the final message of the night was even more important than that tally giving Carter his victory. It was the swift move from Kennedy, withdrawing his name from consideration.

"I am a realist," Kennedy said.

And so, it seems, were the majority of the Democrats who convended here. By their actions tonight they were signaling that they remember the seeds of old discord. Like the Republicans, they want to win.