NASHUA, N.H., OCT. 17 -- Steven Crystal, the Nashua coordinator for Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, was stunned at the news.

Indoors, greeting early arrivals for this morning's Democratic caucuses at the Senior Citizens' Center, he did not see the yellow school bus pull up and discharge two dozen supporters of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri -- all from Ward 8.

Today was muscle-flexing day for the rival Democratic presidential organizations in New Hampshire, the day when up to 559 delegates to the Nov. 21 state convention were to be elected.

The prize was not much greater than the pot at the weekly poker game where Jesse L. Jackson's organizer, Steve Cancian, plays host to his counterparts in the other campaigns. But after months of licking envelopes, making phone calls and arranging living-room receptions for their candidates, the town caucuses held today across the state allowed the 100-odd organizers in the six campaigns to test each other.

When Gephardt organizer Alex Zakrzeski ordered a school bus to bring in Ward 8 voters, it was the equivalent of going nuclear in a tiddlywinks game. It worked. When the 62 ballots from Ward 8 residents were counted, Gephardt supporters had won two of the three delegate slots, with the pro-Dukakis alderman, Mike Pignatelli, grabbing the third.

But citywide, the unofficial tally showed Dukakis 15, Gephardt five, former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt three, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, one, and three uncommitted.

Based on tabulations by the rival campaigns, the statewide order of finish was the same: Dukakis first, Gephardt second and Babbitt third. But the Dukakis camp claimed a 4-to-1 advantage over Gephardt while Gephardt said it was 4-to-3. The state party did no official tally, and the whole exercise was more revealing of the current status of the rival organizations than a measure of the candidates' potential strength in the primary Feb. 16.

More than half the delegates at the Nov. 21 convention are "automatics," either as delegates to the 1986 convention, members of the state committee or town chairmen. The convention itself has no direct relationship to the heavily publicized primary, and State Democratic Chairman J. Joseph Grandmaison has told everyone he will enforce national party Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr.'s ban on any straw votes.

So why does anyone care who has the most delegates? Well, all six candidates will attend the "presidential forum" on the afternoon of the convention; they will be introduced individually by prominent New Hampshire supporters; and "spontaneous demonstrations" will be permitted.

With television cameras and reporters watching, no campaign wants its candidate embarrassed by a thunderingly silent or unenthusiastic response. That happened to Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) at the comparable event four years ago and he suffered serious damage from a spate of stories questioning his status as the major challenger to Walter F. Mondale. A good turnout of supporters at that same event helped establish Gary Hart's credibility.

But there is also an element of contest-for-contest's sake, as the five other campaigns seek favorable ground from which to challenge Dukakis, who is, by any measure, the 800-pound New Hampshire gorilla. He has been far out front in every poll taken here since Hart's withdrawal last spring and has the largest paid staff -- 22 people in 10 offices -- of any campaign.

On the last weekend in September, Dukakis' state campaign manager Charley Baker said, 412 New Hampshire supporters joined 1,130 Massachusetts "volunteers" -- many of them state employes -- in canvassing 70,000 Democratic households.

As befits the front-runner in a state prone to upsets, Baker has been busily lowering expectations, starting with the importance of today's caucuses. "They're not a priority for us," he said Friday. "We want our folks there, because we think activists should participate in building a strong New Hampshire Democratic party. But we don't want to make enemies."

Baker's professed nonchalance drew derisive comments from rival camps, who suspected he was deliberately low-balling his aspirations. Dukakis supporters in Manchester and other population centers had been aggressive in the caucus preliminaries, several other managers said.

But no more aggressive than Gephardt. Within days of Grandmaison's release of the names and addresses of the "automatic" delegates, those people started getting mailings from the congressman, and they have continued to come, along with phone calls and invitations to Gephardt events.

Mark Longobough, who survived Sen. Ernest F. Hollings' (D-S.C.) searingly unsuccessful venture in the 1984 New Hampshire primary, heads a Gephardt staff of 11, which gets high marks from rival campaigns. Gephardt has been campaigning in New Hampshire personally for almost three years and has signed up a cross-section of credible local supporters.

The other campaign that has attained that "comfort level" of familiarity in New Hampshire is Babbitt's. Like Gephardt, he had an early start. Mike Muir has been running the operation since February and has a staff of nine.

But Babbitt's effort to expand his reach in New Hampshire has been hampered by strained finances and the bad reviews he received on the first televised debate. Sheila McGuire, a Nashua supporter, was relieved today that winning three of the 27 Nashua delegates could be viewed as "a good second-tier effort."

The three other campaigns are late starters, playing organizational catch-up. Gore announced shortly after Hart's dropout and quickly recruited good names. Richard Nicholson, a veteran of Sen. Alan Cranston's (D-Calif.) 1984 campaign, came in May and has built a 16-member staff and begun mass mailings.

Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) had only a skeletal operation in New Hampshire until five weeks ago, when Mike Marshall, an Indiana political operative, was sent into the state. Since then, the staff has exploded from three people to 16.

But the Simon staffers are almost entirely geared to arranging his five-day tour of the state, starting next Friday -- a trip designed to establish that Simon is not so focused on the Iowa caucuses that he is short-changing New Hampshire.

Jackson, first in the national polls, is dead last in terms of New Hampshire organization. Cancian, who was with the Hart campaign until it ended, lobbied Jackson for three months to open a New Hampshire office. He got the okay barely a month ago and is, for now, the only paid staffer in the state. The plan, he said Friday, is to build to nine or 10 offices, each with a staff member, coordinating what he hopes will be a wave of out-of-state volunteers. CAMPAIGN SPENDING IN KEY STATES IOWA NEW HAMPSHIRE (Spending Limit-$745,149) (Spending Limit-$444,600) CANDIDATE TOTAL SPENT IN QUARTER TOTAL SPENT TO DATE TOTAL SPENT IN QUARTER TOTAL SPENT TO DATE DEMOCRATS Bruce Babbitt $74,965 $303,188 $42,826 $105,222 Michael S. Dukakis 143,267 214,357 48,151 60,874 Richard A. Gephardt 130,871 249,590 53,893 96,338 Albert Gore Jr. 104,768 114,145 56,626 66,081 Jesse L. Jackson NA NA NA NA Paul Simon 89,568 134,494 25,156 38,850 REPUBLICANS George Bush 111,713 242,289 30,897 87,391 Robert J. Dole 119,379 229,374 67,642 89,530 Pierre S. du Pont IV 50,513 96,843 29,526 30,404 Alexander M. Haig Jr. 13,178 18,476 5,603 23,711 Jack Kemp 59,841 149,096 37,630 56,500 Marion G. (Pat) Robertson 201,509 201,509 146,009 146,009 SOURCE: Federal Election Commission