They were closing in on Dave Nagle and his fellow Iowans.

Like moths attracted to light, the men who are aspiring nonstop to be president were homing in on the hotel room where the new Iowa Democratic chairman was hosting his first national conventional reception.

Nagle figured he'd had one close call -- he had gotten Sen. Edward M. Kennedy out of there just in time, and he was dutifully escorting Sen. Ernest F. Hollings around to all the important personages of this cocktail party when he glanced over his shoulder and saw a sight that made him blanch.

"Oh my God, here comes Mondale," he whispered, the rules of political protocol racing through his mind. "What am I going to do now? Who do I go to now?"

The Iowa reception was an obligatory stop for all the aspirants, because Iowa is the state with the first caucus of the 1984 presidential campaign, a mere year and a half away.

"Well, here's Nagle," boomed Walter Mondale, moving professionally through the crowd to meet his host halfway. "I must be the fifth he's shaken hands with today. You can see the fatigue."

Hollings and Mondale worked the party clockwise, as though it had all been choreographed. And Hollings had just left when Alan Cranston entered.

One of the first hands he shook belonged to a poltician he recognized, after a second glance, as no Iowan at all. It was Hugh Gallen, governor of New Hampshire, which has the first primary.

"Do you have a cocktail party, too?" asked Cranston, wanting to leave no state unturned, especially one of such political importance.

"No, that's why I'm here," said Gallen, in a demonstration of how first-staters stick together. He was followed closely by John Glenn, moving in the same geopolitical orbit.

For three days and nights, the hopeful presidential glitterati of the Democratic party worked the convention circuit, meeting state and local elected officials and party loyalists in small groups and en masse, sometimes issue talking but mostly small talking.

Each has his own shtick.

Glenn's included this oblique reference to heroics past: "I can assure you, I'm running to win. I'm not just running to get something in my resume saying I once ran for president. I've had ticker tape parades before."

What good does making the circuit do? The question is put to Glenn midway through the high-intensity, low-content days of politicking. He smiles and shakes his head.

"Well, I don't know," he says. "That's a good question. It's expected that you do it, so you do it. It shows people you care. At least you've made eyeball contact."

Kennedy, a veteran at working the campaign circuit, agreed. "It is a somewhat unreal kind of format," he conceded.

Sometimes candidates generate more attention than they intended. It appeared to be that way, for example, at John Glenn's "press availability" of the midtern conference. (A press availability differs from a press conference, Glenn explained, because "we have nothing, really, to announce").

Midway through an answer about the Middle East, Glenn suggested that American military troops might be sent to the border between Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank as part of a comprehensive effort to revitalize the autonomy talks there.

Glenn's suggestion was quickly criticized by Kennedy, the party's early frontrunner, and by Sen. Gary Hart.

"That concerns me very much," said Kennedy. The presence of U.S. troops on the West Bank could be "a very real danger," he added. "Their presence there could invite active Soviet intervention."

Glenn had said that in the aftermath of the Israeli thrust at the Palestine Liberation Organization forces in Lebanon, it might actually be possible to "get something going on the autonomy talks" for the West Bank.

For three days, Hart had tried to do his politicking differently.

He hosted no huge cocktail party for delegates, he had no convention hall trailer. He had, instead, an issues seminar, at which he sat with experts of his choosing and discussed matters of the economy, energy and national defense.

At the end of it, he reflected back on just what the Democratic midterm conference had meant for his prospective run for the presidency.

"I guess it has very intangible and indirect benefits," he said. "You make some personal acquaintances and introductions." So, too, he thinks his high-issues, low-key approach to the mini-convention worked well for him, but he is not sure.

"I think the country wants something different," he said. "I think it wants substance . . . I think it wants to know that there is a discipline in which we are able to break down huge problems so they are solvable.

"The booze and backslapping party are symbols of the past."

As the politicians of the party see it, the Democratic presidential aspirants had come to the convention in two categories.

In the first were the well-known fruntrunners, Kennedy and Mondale. In the second were the rest, well known within the U.S. senate but largely unknown in the party at large and in the rest of the country.

After three days of speech-making and conventioneering, these ratings remained unchanged. None in the second tier captivated the convention from the rostrum or the caucus circuit, although Glenn, with his astronaut past and forthright presence, and Hart, with his emphasis on issues, made significant impressions on some.

But Kennedy and Mondale appeared to command the most attention and interest at this convention.

The interest in Mondale was fortified by his Friday speech, which was perhaps his strongest performance ever. The interest was honed by his excellent organization, which is heavily populated by people from the Carter-Mondale White House staff.

For Kennedy it was attention built upon his 1980 challenge to Carter, whose name has rarely been mentioned at this convention even though he still is the titular head.

It is an attention built, as well, on a star quality that may never translate fully into votes but which is nonetheless uniquely his.

For half an hour, Fritz and Joan Mondale have been bathed in klieg lights, the center of attention at the huge reception they are hosting for all delegates in a ballroom of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel.

A bald man with a moustache is pumping Mondale's hand and regaling him with a story about someone who, the man assures Mondale, is a mutual friend. Suddenly there is a stirring of commotion and Mondale notices a figure moving alongside the reciving line on his left.

"There's a politician in here," Mondale says with a laugh and he turns from the man to greet the newly arrived guest.

"Hi," says Ted Kennedy to Fritz Mondale. There are momentary pleasantries, and then Kennedy leans close and asks: "You really going to stand here from 6 to 8?"

"You bet," says Mondale, who is clearly enjoying his party.

With that Kennedy gives Mondale the obligatory slap on the left shoulder for the benefit of the photographers who are recording the event. Kennedy moves on to the far corner of the room.

And as he moves, much of the crowd that had been pressing tight around the Mondales moves with him, and so do the television lights. Mondale is left, still shaking hands, but standing in the shadows at his own reception.