Mindful of the theory about the early bird, at 4 a.m. New York was waiting at the Energy Department. Oklahoma was not far behind. Texas waited for the news media to assemble before rolling up in classic Lone Star style, with a truck full of documents and a caravan of members of Congress to witness delivery.

"If they read them, they'll see that Texas has the best sites," said Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), while that deficit-minded foe of federal spending, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), stood by beaming.

The race is on for the superconducting supercollider, a $6 billion atom smasher that is billed as the juiciest federal project in decades even though Congress has not decided whether to build it.

Nearly a dozen states descended on the Energy Department yesterday to submit bids for what Energy Secretary John S. Herrington has called the "crown jewel of high-energy physics" and what most state officials view as a crown jewel, period.

When the application deadline passes at 2 p.m. today, the department expects to have three dozen proposals from 24 bidders, some involving several states. Only a few states had not filed by yesterday, including California, where the legislature last night apparently killed an attempt to keep the state in contention. The Californians were split by a partisan dispute over job quotas for minorities and women.

The state that wins the supercollider, a 52-mile atomic racetrack that would dwarf existing accelerators, gets 4,500 construction jobs, 2,500 permanent positions, a $275 million annual operating budget and the academic prestige that goes with being the site of the world's largest and most expensive research tool.

The supercollider would consist of an underground ring of 10,000 super-cooled magnets capable of accelerating beams of particles to nearly the speed of light. Collisions of the beams will be studied for clues to the building blocks of the universe and its creation.

The magnitude of the project goes a long way toward explaining why the governors of Ohio, Louisiana and Colorado journeyed to Washington to deliver applications yesterday, why DOE had a truck standing by to ferry the documents to its offices in Germantown and why Brooks and Gramm stood side by side at a news conference, extolling virtues of the Texas Panhandle life style.

"When you see Jack Brooks and me together, you know it's something important for Texas," Gramm said.

Although the official application was limited to 200 pages, exclusive of charts and graphs, few states were willing to rest their cases so briefly. Texas' proposal weighed in at 2,400 pounds. Ohio's 60 boxes of documents measured 200 cubic feet.

Bert Roth, DOE procurement chief, gamely signed receipts for the material, although the boxes posed for the cameras were ceremonial stand-ins. "We didn't want to be lifting the boxes," Roth said. "You could hurt yourself."

To enter the competition, states had only to meet a handful of criteria: DOE expects 16,000 acres of free land for the collider and will rule out any state that cannot supply adequate power and water for the project. The site also must have "no known unacceptable environmental impacts."

The National Academy of Sciences will review the proposals for technical merit, such as ease of construction and the absence of earthquake potential, and will prepare a short list of finalists by the end of the year. If all goes according to schedule, President Reagan will name the winner in January 1989, in one of his last official acts.

When the bidding process was opened in April, Herrington said it was designed to be "absolutely open and aboveboard." But because virtually every state is certain that its site will pass technical muster, the competition has come down to a battle of inducements, from the tangible to the subjective.

Sandwiched between the geological charts and maps are treatises on schools and shopping centers, cultural attractions and air quality and proximity to lakes, parks, forests or any other conceivable attraction.

Arizona is touting its year-round construction climate; Michigan has countered with a pledge from its labor unions not to strike while the project is under construction. New York, with support from several surrounding states, argues that scientists will want the amenities of the populous East; Ohio contends they will prefer the pastoral serenity of its rural site north of Columbus.

In an effort to avert a bidding war, Congress ruled out consideration of direct financial incentives, but it allowed states to offer "site enhancements" such as new roads, sewers and housing development.

Gramm said Texas is willing to put up $700 million in such enhancements, including a utility subsidy that would provide power to the collider at 1 cent per kilowatt-hour. The subsidy was aimed at countering an advantage enjoyed by Washington state, which has abundant supplies of low-cost hydropower. "So far as I know, they're not giving it away up there, and we're getting close to that," Gramm said. "Nobody in the nation can match that."

North Carolina is offering $452 million in road and school improvements. Illinois, home of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, is counting on its reputation in high-energy physics as well as an offer of $570 million in roads, housing and fellowships.

Colorado has offered a $300 million package of road and railway improvements. But the advantage that Gov. Roy Romer (D) was touting yesterday had nothing to do with either. "We have the life style," he said as he prepared to help hoist Colorado's flag-bedecked boxes into the DOE truck. "You have to ask the question: 'Can I recruit people to come here?' Our site is 45 minutes from the Rockies."