The National Organization for Women prepared to choose new leadership and possibly new directions today with much of the hoopla of a national political party convention.

Folk singers futilely urged sing-alongs on delegates preoccupied with last-minute politicking in the crowded aisles. A film tribute to outgoing president Eleanor Smeal roused the cavernous hall to the emotional ovation traditional for departing leaders, and the speeches droned on endlessly. For the first time in recent memory, the election outcome was in doubt.

The convention polls closed at midnight EDT and ballots were still being counted early Sunday morning.

"I have a knowledge of the grass roots that no one else has," Sonia Johnson, the most controversial of the five presidential contenders, told the southeastern states' caucus Friday night. "And my national and international image will be useful to this organization."

But Johnson, who was kicked out of the Mormon church for her NOW involvement, is the anti-establishment to this anti-establishment organization, running on a platform of more activism than many members want. Her jump into the race has made some delegates see the election as a referendum on the pace of Smeal's leadership.

Smeal, 43, highly respected during her five years in office, brought NOW from 40,000 to nearly a quarter-million members and a $13 million annual budget as the nation's most powerful women's rights advocacy group. But her drive to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified fell short by three states, and Johnson's backers argued that Smeal could have been tougher.

NOW founder Betty Friedan, an observer this year, was among those opposing Johnson as calling for "too much confrontation. NOW is on the cutting edge of American politics right now and that's not the way to go," Friedan said. Smeal was publicly uncommitted but unofficially backed Judy Goldsmith, her executive vice president over the last three years and a NOW activist for five years before that. As Smeal did in 1979, Goldsmith headed a slate of candidates for lesser offices who ran together as the team of experience.

"I don't see us as ruling out any type of strategy," Goldsmith told questioners in the northeast regional caucus. "My background is in the civil rights and the peace movements . . . civil disobedience is a time-honored way to effect social change." She cautioned, however, that it must be in the context of a total political action program.

The three other presidential candidates also came up through the system and differed from Goldsmith mostly in personality and style.

Conventioneering NOW-style required some familiar political talents: long hours standing up, fixed smiles and no bathroom breaks. All the candidates for each office trooped together from caucus to caucus, trying to make their pitches in one or two-minute speeches.

The 1,675 delegates have just about as many interests, and the feminist organization has grown so large that the candidates are unfamiliar to most of the members.

Candidate Jane Wells-Schooley, a Pennsylvania businesswoman and NOW's action vice president, had hoped for Smeal's endorsement but lost out because of her "overly positive personal style," as one Goldsmith backer put it.

"We have everything there to make women win on these issues but it's just not all in the right place," candidate Mary M. McQuay of Oklahoma City, Okla., told the Great Lakes regional caucus.

Anne L. Lang of Pittsburgh, a NOW stalwart for 14 years and a board member, reminded the western regional caucus that she "started chapters and developed issues like rape and violence in the home that nobody used to talk about."