MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA -- Bert Permar, a government teacher at the community college here, is brokering the Democratic presidential race from the living room of his modest ranch-style house.

He thoroughly enjoys it.

Three presidential candidates -- former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) -- have stopped by to meet Permar and his friends. A fourth, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, visited the college recently for lunch.

"The heat is on," said Permar, who has been chairman of the Marshall County Democratic Party "off and on" since 1968. "People are going full-steam. And my hunch is it has speeded up since Hart got out."

Most Americans will pay little or no attention to the 1988 presidential race for a year or more. But for months, a few thousand activists in Iowa and New RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT Another in an Occasional Series Hampshire have been objects of intense grass-roots organizing by presidential hopefuls in both parties.

The candidates -- especially the long shots -- badly need the help of these activists, and will do almost anything to get it. Babbitt, for example, recruited his first Iowa supporters on a bike ride across the state. Later, he lent two members of his staff to the Iowa Democratic Party for the 1986 campaign.

"I'll make house calls. I'll do windows," Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) told one Iowa audience. "I'll do whatever it takes. And if I can't, I'll get Elizabeth {his wife, the transportation secretary} for you."

Grass-roots organizing is an insiders game, tedious and time-consuming. Not long ago, Babbitt's campaign claimed a major victory after the former governor signed up 15 activists during a five-day visit to Iowa.

"The rule of thumb is you need to pick up two new ones a day," said Gephardt. "There's nothing easy about it. It's three yards and a cloud of dust."

Permar, 58, understands the process. Jimmy Carter, then an obscure former governor, was the

Months, sometimes years before the first votes are cast, the machinery of a modern presidential campaign is set in place. Some things are common to all candidates: After the decision to run, money must be raised, an organization put in place, a message refined, a political strategy formulated. This is another in a series of articles examining major elements in presidential campaigning this pre-election year.

first presidential hopeful to visit his home. That was in October 1975. Thirteen months later, Carter was elected president. A victory in the Iowa precinct caucuses gave him his first big boost.

Now almost every Democratic candidate is trying to duplicate what Carter did, and Permar's living room has become a brokerage house for presidential politics. He will invite dozens of activists to meet with any candidate who asks.

"It's really a nice way to campaign," Permar said. "I think this is the way democracy was meant to operate."

The idea behind grass-roots organizing is to build a small circle of highly committed supporters, then expand the circle again and again, creating concentric rings like those formed by dropping a stone in water.

In her book "Hart and Soul," Susan Berry Casey quoted Gary Hart, who withdrew from the race last month, explaining the theory to a group of early followers:

"Each circle creates another slightly bigger circle until we have 30 or 40 committed people in the state, then hundreds, then thousands of people talking about this candidate and this candidacy, spreading the message. Eventually, a year from now, we will be delivering that message to the general voting population, the last and biggest circle."

Candidates start building their circles among a small group of "key" activists. About 500 Iowans in each party are considered part of this group.

Some activists want to influence policy or the course of the nation. Some hope for a trip to their party's national convention or an invitation to the White House. Others like the status that an attachment to a presidential campaign gives them, and the attention that candidates bestow on them. They are rarely paid.

"The activists want to be players," said David Wilhelm, Iowa coordinator for Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). "There is really a desire to be involved in a campaign."

Some activists are well-known statewide leaders such as former governor Bob Ray, who recently endorsed Vice President Bush; Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who is working for Dole; and former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lowell Junkins, a Biden supporter.

Candidates seek support of established local leaders because they can bring their political networks into a presidential campaign and lend credibility to the candidates they back.

Grassley, for example, has virtually turned over his entire political organization to Dole. His wife, Barbara, is one of Dole's most outspoken backers in the state, and one of his top aides, Tom Synhorst, is running Dole's Iowa campaign.

Babbitt, on his first visit to Iowa, made a point of meeting state Attorney General Thomas Miller, one of Iowa's most popular Democrats. Miller was impressed. He said, "I left that first meeting thinking {that} he really exemplifies what I look for in a presidential candidate, except a real chance to win."

No politician wants to join a hopeless cause. So Miller kept looking. Gephardt, Biden and Hart courted him. But Babbitt didn't give up. His staff put together a fund-raiser for Miller and kept him posted on campaign progress.

Miller was impressed with the amount of time Babbitt spent in the state, his campaign staff and how two unlikely Babbitt issues -- day care and ground water -- seemed to be catching fire. But mostly he was impressed with Babbitt's personality.

"He is a candidate who wears well," said Miller, who eventually agreed to chair Babbitt's Iowa campaign. "In my heart I always knew he was my kind of guy," Miller said. "Finally, I decided: By gosh, this guy does have a chance."

Other key activists are party officeholders and former campaign workers like Permar, unknown beyond their own communities. They are sought after because they can provide links to a second, larger tier of activists.

Carter began courting Iowa activists in February 1975, about a year before the caucuses. He would be a slow starter by 1988 standards. As of June 5, Gephardt, the apparent leader, had spent 77 days in Iowa.

The opening rounds of presidential politics here are essentially an exercise in collecting names -- of voters to telephone, to send letters to, to invite to meetings, to raise money from and to recruit as campaign workers. The work is conducted in living rooms, small-town coffee shops and small hotel meeting rooms.

There are about 599,000 registered Democrats and 537,000 registered Republicans in Iowa. About 100,000 -- or fewer than one in five -- are expected to participate in each of the party caucuses.

"The name of the game is to get 30,000 or 35,000 supporters to go to caucuses Feb. 8," said Chris Hamel, Babbitt's Iowa coordinator. "That's the only true measure of support. Ultimately, polls are irrelevant. The only true measure is your list of supporters. So everyone is building up a list of names. Then, you use those names to get other supporters."

A then-unknown Republican political operative named Rich Bond, now political director of Bush's campaign, is the established expert in this type of grass-roots organizing. In 1980, he did such a thorough job of identifying Bush supporters that the week before the caucuses he was able to mail special election kits to 8,000 Republican households.

The kits told each Republican of the time and place of his or her caucus, and even the names and phone numbers of other Bush supporters in that precinct. Bush's upset win in Iowa that year almost cost Ronald Reagan the presidency.

Bush has maintained the 1980 list, and recently released the names of 5,000 Republicans willing to identify themselves in public as supporters of the vice president. No other candidate in either party can identify 2,000 such supporters.

"For the moment, Bush is front-runner here. He has the best organization. He knows where the bodies are buried," said Steve Roberts, Dole's chairman. "But we're moving up. It will be a real battle of grass-roots organization."

Gephardt and Babbitt are said to have the best-organized Iowa campaigns on the Democratic side, largely because they have spent more time and effort than their rivals developing lists of supporters.

In April, Babbitt became the first candidate to contact by phone and letter every Democrat who attended the 1984 caucuses. This month his campaign is broadcasting TV ads, making 55,000 follow-up telephone calls and sending out 300,000 letters in the state, a spokesman said.

Gephardt used a different grass-roots organizing strategy. He has spent a great deal of time cultivating union, education and farm groups, hoping to plug into their network of supporters. He stressed his support for trade protection legislation and a major farm bill cosponsored with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Iowa is considered a far more difficult state to organize than New Hampshire. Unlike in New Hampshire, people here declare their presidential preferences in precinct caucuses, which are essentially neighborhood meetings.

"In a primary state, all you have to do is to get people to go to their normal polling place and vote," said Paul Tully, a veteran political operative now with Dukakis. "In Iowa, you have to persuade people to drive to a building that may be 30 or 40 minutes away from their home on a cold winter night, stay there 3 1/2 hours, and then declare their presidential preference in front of their neighbors. It puts a tremendous burden on an organization."

Tully was political director of Walter F. Mondale's 1984 campaign. He said campaign telephone banks identified 200,000 Mondale supporters in the state. The campaign contacted each of them six times by phone, letter or in person before the caucuses. Only one in four, however, attended a caucus.

"The last contact was a formal invitation which said, 'Joan and Walter F. Mondale invite you to the most important event of their lives,' " Tully said.

Steve Lynch, Gary Hart's first supporter in Iowa, outfitted his gray van ("Van Force One") with a mobile phone and a new license plate ("Hart '88") this year.

Lynch, an accountant from the tiny (population 540) northeast Iowa town of Lawler, was crushed when Hart dropped out of the presidential race following reports about his relationship with a 29-year-old Miami actress.

But now Lynch, 33, is being treated like the hottest political property in the state. Almost every Democratic presidential hopeful is rolling out the red carpet for him and other former Hart supporters.

In recent weeks, Lynch has had lunch with Biden; had a one-on-one meeting with Gephardt; chatted with Babbitt at a reception; and traveled four days on the campaign trial with Dukakis. He is leaning toward Dukakis.

At first, other campaigns hesitated about scrambling after Hart's old supporters, many of whom were angry, bitter and confused over his withdrawal. "It was almost like a death in the family, and you had to approach it the same way," said Hamel.

"The mourning period is over," said George Appleby, another longtime Hart supporter. "Political reality goes on with a vengeance."

For late-starting candidates, such as Dukakis, Hart's withdrawal opened new possibilities. At the same time, it put intense pressure on early-starting candidates such as Gephardt to consolidate and expand their positions.

"It caused the campaign to go national very quickly," said Bill Flemming, Gephardt's Iowa coordinator. "There was new interest you had to follow through on. We had to accommodate the new interest. It has given us a shot of momentum."

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) has rented Hart's old headquarters here; Dukakis hired Teresa Vilmain, Hart's old state coordinator. Biden sent out a letter signed by former Hart supporters. "We're going after the top 100 to 150 Hart activists," said Wilhelm, Biden's Iowa coordinator.

The Babbitt campaign identified 2,600 former Hart supporters in a telephone canvas. Each is to receive a telephone call and a personally addressed letter in coming weeks.

The letters don't mention Hart by name, according to Hamel. But they make Babbitt sound much like Hart. They describe him as a "new ideas" candidate who refuses to accept money from political action committees and opposes Gephardt on trade protectionism.

"When Hart got out, it was like jump ball," said Junkins, the former gubernatorial nominee now supporting Biden. "The game started all over again."