This could be a tough year for women in politics. The reversal of fortunes suffered this summer by the woman considered most likely to capture a major statewide office -- Iowa's Roxanne Conlin -- has left women looking at a possible shutout in top-of-the-ticket contests in 1982.

But if there is trouble at the top, a weekend seminar here -- at the site of the "Conlin calamity" -- furnished live testimony supporting the surveys that suggest that women from an increasingly wide variety of backgrounds are moving more rapidly into politics.

One said she came for help in building an organization for her bid to become the first nurse elected to the Iowa legislature.

Another came, in part, to help decide if she was ready to move from campaign manager to candidate.

A young woman, about to lose her federally funded job in a training program because of budget reductions, decided "it was time for me to learn what this political process is all about."

Two staff members of the Iowa Abortion Rights Action League came hoping to learn "how best to move volunteers into a variety of legislative campaigns."

A second-grade teacher came to get tips on becoming a national convention delegate, and maybe a candidate herself.

The two partners in a six-year-old graphic design firm, beginning to get contracts for political brochures and billboards, came to get a better understanding of the way their work fits into the overall campaign.

Two black women came in order to improve their fund-raising skills for a campaign in which they hope to elect a black male to the state senate against his white female opponent.

And two Republicans -- apparently, the only two -- came on behalf of the Junior League of Des Moines, dipping its toes into politics after an initial success last year in lobbying for a bill to increase the marriage license fee and put the money in a trust fund for victims of child and spouse abuse.

They were among the 27 registrants who gathered for 16 hours Saturday and today at the Des Moines YWCA for $70-a-person campaign techniques seminar, sponsored by the National Women's Education Fund, a 10-year-old Washington-based organization.

Similar seminars were being held this weekend in Denver and Louisville, part of a series of 20 such training sessions sponsored this month and next by NWEF in conjunction with a variety of local groups.

The Des Moines seminar had a particular significance, for in Iowa, what many regarded as the biggest opportunity in the nation this year for an electoral breakthrough by women has diminished -- if not disappeared.

Conlin, a former U.S. attorney who defeated two men to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, was favored in an early summer poll to beat Republican Lt. Gov. Terry Branstad and become Iowa's first woman governor and, likely, the only one in the country.

But since she and her husband filed a financial disclosure form showing that real estate tax write-offs had spared them from paying any state income taxes and only minimal federal taxes, her campaign has slumped. She is now a distinct underdog, a matter of pained comment among many of the seminar participants involved directly or indirectly in her race.

She shares that underdog status with the other two prominent women candidates, Vermont Lt. Gov. Madeleine Kunin (D), who is opposing Gov. Richard A. Snelling (R) in his try for a fourth term, and Missouri state Sen. Harriet Woods (D), challenging Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) in his bid for a second term.

The pattern of nominations virtually assures at least a slight increase in the number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives, in statewide offices below governor and in the legislatures.

The uphill fights Conlin, Kunin and Woods face in their publicized races -- along with the defeats of the Equal Rights Amendment -- could mark 1982 as a year without notable victories for women political activists. But other factors suggest that women -- and the women's vote -- may be unusually important this year.

The "gender difference" that began showing up as a significant factor in national polls in the 1980 presidential campaign has persisted as a problem for President Reagan and the Republicans. Regularly, 6 to 12 percent less women than men respond favorably to questions on Reagan and his party. This is a major source of concern for GOP strategists.

But the same gap is also showing up in many key state races. In the close Illinois governorship, incumbent James R. Thompson (R) is being hurt by women's defection to former senator Adlai E. Stevenson III (D).

Last week, the National Organization for Women announced it was targeting Thompson for defeat, in large part because he backed as his choice for lieutenant governor a state legislator who symbolized opposition to ERA, rather than a women legislator who was one of its key supporters.

In the Massachusetts gubernatorial primary, ex-governor Michael S. Dukakis has a wide lead over Gov. Edward J. King among women. Thus, it was no accident that on the same day last week that Dukakis was addressing a downtown "working women's rally," King was opening a new state-subsidized day-care center.

In state after state, women are using the leverage of the "gender gap" polls to extract concessions from candidates. Mary M. Riche, a Des Moines public relations executive and Republican activist who will run next month's NWEF training seminar in Minneapolis, gave an example. With Conlin's challenge facing him, Branstad, an opponent of both ERA and abortion, did not try to block the recent Iowa GOP convention from reaffirming its "freedom-of-choice" plank.

Rahn Westby of St. Paul, Minn., who ran the weekend seminar here, told her students that the leading candidates for governor in both party primaries in Minnesota have already pledged publicly to make half their appointments women. "And we're not talking just about the cosmetology board," she said. "We're talking about power positions."

Westby, the 32-year-old senior partner of a five-woman law firm and manager of the campaigns for the appointment and subsequent election of the first woman justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, stressed the NWEF theme that women should pursue rewards for the efforts more and more of them are putting into politics.

"Our purpose," she said, "is to mainstream women. We do not believe in martyrdom. The idea of participating on the basis of sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice is not healthy. We want you to take credit for what you do and to be visible while doing it so when you need something as a reward for your participation in politics, people know who you are.

"Negotiate what you want for your part in the campaign. Men negotiate these rewards all the time. But women have made too much coffee, gone out for too many doughnuts, licked too many stamps, without getting anything in return. You need to do it, not just for yourself, but for women generally."

That kind of pep talk was mingled with practice sessions, which also showed the hard-boiled realism the women's movement has gained in its past decade of struggle. At the outset of an afternoon devoted to fund-raising techniques, for example, Westby said, "We are not going to talk about how to put on a $25-a-person wine-and-cheese party. Any woman who has ever run a child's birthday party can do that. We are going to talk about $500 contributions."

Then the students practiced on each other, alternating the roles of earnest solicitor and reluctant donor while others critiqued them and then took their turns.

"Asking for large donations is the thing women are most reluctant to do," said Westby, a Democrat who is now fund-raising for the reelection of Minnesota secretary of state Joan Growe. "It is the biggest hurdle. But the reality is that you can't win without money and the media it will buy. And you can't get what you need at $25 a crack. Women can't learn the big-donation technique by observation, because so much of the big-dollar fund-raising is done behind closed doors by all-male networks which women never see. So we try to do it here."

The session was a hit with the women here, and with two middle-aged men who also heard about it and signed up.

Mickey Carlson, the co-owner of the graphics studio, said it was her first step back into politics since her days as an antiwar student activist 10 years ago. "Being able to manipulate the business system a little bit makes me think it's possible maybe to make the political system, too," she said. "I decided it was time to try to start making a difference again."

Rebecca Banks, a veteran black community leader, said, "for me, the priority this year is electing our first black state senator, Tom Mann," whose oppenent in the racially mixed district is state Rep. Joanne Trucano (R). "But," she said, "women have taken a back seat too long, and this kind of seminar makes me realize what our potential can be."

Evelyn Gore, the nurse who is challenging a Republican incumbent in a suburban Des Moines district, said her motivation came from testifying before a legislative committee last year.

She was seeking state support for a continuing education program for nurses that was being cut back by the federal government. Even though some money was obtained, she said, "I was appalled at the lack of knowledge of the health issues," and by the discovery that "apparently, there had never been a nurse elected to the Iowa legislature."

Despite the cloud of Conlin's sudden reversal of fortunes, there was at least one ray of light on that front.

Sheri Birge, one of the Junior League Republicans and a 1980 Reagan National Convention delegate told her table that "my mother, who is a lifelong Republican, was going to vote for Roxanne -- until the tax thing. Now, I think we've got her switched."

"You just think that," said Stephanie Heitman, a Spirit Lake schoolteacher. "She may have her own ideas."