DES MOINES -- The presidential campaign, which may not have slipped into gear yet for the rest of the country, has been zipping along seemingly forever in Iowa.

A Drake University professor who keeps tabs said the 1988 candidates have logged 544 campaign days in the Hawkeye State, which attracts such attention because it holds the nation's first delegate caucuses, Feb. 8.

Hugh Winebrenner, professor of public administration and author of the forthcoming, "The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event," predicts that, by the time the caucuses are held, the 15 or so candidates in the Republican and Democratic contests will have spent more than 1,000 days in the state.

The record for time in any state was logged in the 1984 campaign, when the candidates spent 300 days here. That number would have been higher had there been a Republican nomination fight.

To support such activity, the candidates have 151 staffers on payrolls here, with a new hiring wave expected around Labor Day. Few other states have even a single presidential candidate's staffer permanently assigned to them.

Iowans pride themselves for maintaining a political preserve where, in an age of celluloid politics, future presidents still campaign one handshake at a time. Few doubt the blessings that flow from such voter contact.

But the exponential growth of time and resources invested in one state has triggered a lively debate about how much more of this good thing anyone can stand. Not surprisingly, the debate has a much different ring to it outside Iowa.

In the national media this summer, Iowa's process has taken a pretty good bashing. Articles in the New Republic ("Charade on Main Street"), Newsweek ("Far Too Much Ado About Little Iowa") and U.S. News & World Report ("Why Iowa is Bad for American Politics") have depicted Iowa caucus-goers as an unrepresentative and spoiled bunch. They also faulted the candidates for demeaning themselves by sending flowers, making hospital visits, riding in bicycle races and tailoring their positions to court caucus support.

Allegations have been heard from Gary Hart's former campaign manager, Bill Dixon, that elected officials in Iowa routinely demand campaign contributions before endorsing a presidential hopeful. Democratic leaders angrily denied that and challenged Dixon to name names. When he wouldn't, the brouhaha passed, but with bruised feelings all around.

Activists here don't mind saying they're feeling picked on. "Iowans are deeply committed, politically savvy people," said Bonnie Campbell, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "Their feelings are hurt by all these charges. "We're not arrogant people. If we seem demanding, it's because we take what we do so seriously."

Fifteen Iowa campaign managers, not exactly disinterested observers, rushed to second her motion. "Iowans feel a lot of pressure to make the right choice," said William Fleming, who runs the Iowa campaign of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "They understand the responsibility that being first brings."

But the voters -- as opposed to the activists -- evince an altogether different kind of reaction to this debate over the Iowa process. It is massive indifference and bemused bafflement.

A walk yesterday among visitors to the Iowa State Fair, where seven Democratic candidates are to debate today, left one hard pressed to find anybody the least bit defensive about Iowa's process.

The fair-goers barely understand it; they don't participate in it; they have no idea what they are supposed to be defensive about. And they're puzzled by two things: Why do the presidential candidates keep trekking through their state in this off year, and why does anyone outside the state care?

"I can't understand why they start as early as they do," said Elmer Bowers, a retired farm-equipment factory worker. "It seems like they got about a dozen in each league, and you have to spend about two years listening to them, but there's so many of them you can't ever sort it all out." Bowers said he hasn't the slightest idea who he'll support. "They never do what they say they'll do anyway."

Most of two dozen fair-goers interviewed said they know Iowa receives a lot of attention because it's the first state on the calendar, but many said they are suprised that other states don't see just as much of the candidates as they do.

"I think they're all coming here because we're in the core of the country, and we've been the hardest hit by the recession and the slowest to recover," Karen Tuttle of Des Moines said.

If history is a guide, fewer than 15 percent of Iowa's registered voters will participate in the February caucuses. Gilbert Cranberg, retired editorial page editor of The Des Moines Register, wrote in an Op-ed page article this summer that the system "is so dumb that most Iowans don't participate." He said he hoped to spark a statewide debate but was chagrined that "there wasn't a single letter to the editor in response." Non-participants appear not to care; participants appear not to want to prolong the argument lest they lose what they have.

Campbell said the solution to what ails the Iowa process is restraint, but she admits it's not clear what will spark such restraint. A hopeful note was struck this summer when the Kansas City Star ran an article headlined: "Gap Noticed in Gephardt's Iowa Schedule." It reported that Gephardt had gone a full 30 days without setting foot in Iowa, an event considered noteworthy.

Gephardt, who leads all candidates with 80 days logged here, has been back with a vengeance. This summer, he rented a Des Moines apartment so his wife and three children would have a place to live while the family campaigned throughout the state. He rented a second apartment for his mother. The children are about to head back east to school, but Gephardt's mother has extended her lease until February.