CHARLESTON,W. VA. -- Virginia Nesselrotte, data base clerk, zeroed in on Sen. Paul Simon's (D-Ill.) ear lobes. Too big. "I'm afraid people won't listen to what he's saying because of his appearance," she said.

Larry Browning, telephone installer, was bothered by the resonance of former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt's (D) voice. Before long, it clicked: "Reminds me too much of Richard Nixon's."

Mike Perry, service technician, couldn't believe Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) is running for president. "Sounded to me like he was running for student council."

Frank Thomas, warehouse attendant, was put off by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s (D-Del.) whole act. "He kept getting flowery . . . but it was just words. That's all we've heard for the past six years. Words. I'm sick of it."

As critics go, they don't get much more unsparing than the 40 members of Local 2001, Communication Workers of America (CWA), AFL-CIO, who gathered at their union hall recently to watch the hottest new video in politics -- a sort of sneak preview of the 1988 campaign.

It's titled "Democracy at Work," a 66-minute videocassette produced by the AFL-CIO. It consists of 13 presidential candidates -- seven Democrats, six Republicans -- each making four-minute speeches from an identical studio setting. Thousands of locals around the country are going to show it this summer as a novel supplement to a political education campaign that will culminate with an endorsement -- or, more likely, nonendorsement -- vote this October at the general board meeting of the AFL-CIO.

Little beyond a first impression gets conveyed in four minutes. But first impressions matter. What stood out about the showing here was how little it stirred anyone. "They're all vanilla," said Mike McClanhan, a technican. "There's not a dynamic one in the bunch," agreed Steve Moss, president of the local.

The Democrats did at least manage to hold the attention of the rank and file. By the time the tape rolled around to the six Republicans (appearing alphabetically, after the Democrats), deportment in the hall slipped.

The unionists greeted Alexander M. Haig Jr. with mock salutes, Vice President Bush with snickers, and former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV's drug-testing proposals with loud guffaws. Between the shuffling in seats and the trips to the coffee machine came these helpful suggestions from the floor: "Why don't somebody hit fast forward?" and "Where's the 18-minute gap now that we need it?"

Still, labor leaders count the tape as a success -- and with reason. The AFL-CIO's endorsement of Walter F. Mondale in 1984 was portrayed by Mondale's opponents -- both in the Democratic primaries and the general election -- as embodying the worst of old-style, special-interest politics.

Union leaders are anxious to avoid a replay of that in 1988; they figure the tape will help. "It'll look like sour grapes for some candidate who has been on the tape to come out and claim the candidate we endorse is a captive of labor," said Morton Bahr, international president of the CWA.

There's another motive. Few union presidents expect that the AFL-CIO this fall will be able to reach the required two-thirds consensus needed to back one single candidate in the primaries. But they are eager to go through the process anyway -- and, in so doing, deliver a message to their 13 million members about "bottom-up" union political participation.

"We know union members don't follow our recommendations to the degree they did 15 or 20 years ago," Bahr said. "We're trying to show the rank and file that we want your input, and we're going to give you as much information as possible." Bahr plans to poll his membership three times this summer before his board decides whether the CWA will back a candidate. He said he is especially pleased that the AFL-CIO tape includes Republicans. Even though few labor unions have endorsed Republicans for president, about a fifth of union members are Republican. The leaders don't want to cut themselves off from so big a slice of the rank and file.

The tapes have just begun circulating. So far, most viewings have been not at union halls but at regional meeting of labor leaders. In those settings, according to a handful of before-and-after straw polls, the "winners" are Simon and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D).

Simon begins his speech by boasting he has the top AFL-CIO vote rating (89 percent) of all presidential candidates, then advocates tough trade legislation and a guaranteed job opportunity for all and blasts tax cuts for millionaires. He says his views may sound as old-fashioned as his "bow-tie and horned-rimmed" glasses, but he reminds viewers they were good enough for Harry S Truman.

It's no surprise the presentation went over well among labor leaders (though some unions, especially public employes, worry about his advocacy of a balanced-budget amendment). However, among the audience in this converted house on the banks of the Kanawha River, the fascination was with Simon's appearance, not his platform.

Some union members said they thought he looked like comic Pee-wee Herman; others, like the late broadcaster Dave Garroway. One said he sounded like commentator Paul Harvey. And there were familiar cracks about the name he shares with the famous singer.

The reactions are a reminder that American voters, first and foremost, are video-literate. They may take their time to reach a judgment about a candidate's policies and character. But on everything from ear lobes to body language, they're quick studies.

It was not lost on them, for example, that younger Democrats on the video gave their presentations from behind a podium -- so as to look presidential -- while the older Republicans tended to favor the informality of the chair next to the podium -- so as to warm themselves to a potentially hostile audience.

The Republicans spent more time recounting war stories and talking generally about military strength. The Democrats stayed away from military issues. "Sounds to me like the Republican idea of a jobs program is to get us in a war," said Jann Courts, a service representative.

Some of the candidates' reputations and/or resumes preceded them. Of Dukakis, Mike Perry said: "If Tip {former House speaker Thomas P. O'Neill} and the Kennedys let him be governor of Massachusetts, he must be a good labor guy."

Dukakis spoke of the way unemployment in his state has fallen from more than 11 percent to less than 4 percent while he's been governor, and he organized his remarks around a "ask not what we're going to do, ask what we've already done" pitch that seemed to go over well.

Babbitt makes the riskiest presentation. He closed his remarks by taking head-on the issue that disqualifies him in the eyes of many union members -- his decision as governor of Arizona to call out the National Guard to preserve the peace during a copper strike in 1983. Babbitt said he acted after a 3-year-old girl was shot, and he added that in 1986, the same union asked him to mediate a contract dispute with the same company.

The audience seemed impressed -- until Ray Pauley, an unemployed steelworker, interjected: "I'm glad he brought that up. But what he didn't say was that the Guard was there to protect scabs." This triggered boos, and that was that for Babbitt in this union hall.

Jesse L. Jackson's presentation seemed uncharacteristically wooden to many -- perhaps because he isn't accustomed to speaking from a TelePrompTer. One member was taken with him: "He's the only one making sense," said McClanahan after Jackson had closed with an oratorical call to arms: "They say cut back; I say fight back."

Gore, Biden and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) either drew no reaction or negative ones -- but the brickbats for them were bouquets compared with the responses to Republicans.

Bush drew catcalls of "Mr. Bootlick"; Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) was deemed "shifty-looking"; and retired general Haig was saluted derisively as "commander in chief."

Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, the 13th of 13 candidates to appear, did manage a small coup. His rich voice, strong television presence and obvious story-telling skills quieted the unruly crowd in a instant. For a full four minutes, everyone listened in silent fascination.

Afterward, no one said they'd vote for him.