DES MOINES -- Kaytee Davis, who has been chairman or cochairman of the Republican Party in her southeast Iowa county for more than 20 years, was shocked when she showed up for her first Pat Robertson for President rally.

"I only recognized about six faces in the whole crowd of 250, and I've been around Republican Party politics longer than I like to admit," Davis recalls. "I kept asking myself, 'Who are these people? Where were they four years ago or eight years ago when we needed them? Why are they all of a sudden coming out of the woodwork?' "

These same questions have been asked in Republican circles ever since Marion G. (Pat) Robertson shook up the GOP race here by trouncing his rivals in a Sept. 12 straw poll.

Robertson's supporters are the big unknown in the GOP race, the most uncharted and, to some, most frightening "new force" of the political season. No one seems to know how many there are or what they're up to. Few have been active in politics before, and pollsters have trouble finding them on their radar screens. Many of their names don't even appear on party registration rolls.

But Robertson, dismissed as a fringe candidate here a few months ago, is now seen as one of the biggest players in the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses.

Bush, unnerved by finishing third in the straw poll behind Robertson and Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), dispatched the No. 2 person in his campaign, Rich Bond, to take over operations here.

"I'd say Robertson will probably come in second in Iowa, and he could conceivably come in first because of the deep commitment of his supporters," said Bev Tauke, Iowa spokesman for the Dole campaign, voicing an opinion shared by many.

Two things about Robertson supporters worry his more conventional rivals.

The first is their determination and devotion to the candidate. Bond describes an incident that he says occurred the day of the straw poll that underscores how warily Robertson's opponents view his campaign.

According to Bond, a college student recruited by the Bush campaign was waiting in line to vote when he was approached by a group of Robertson supporters. "They asked him, 'Who are you going to vote for?' " Bond said. "When he told them George Bush, three of them got down on their knees on the floor and started praying for his soul."

The second is what Robertson supporters could do to caucus turnout. No more than 106,000 Republicans have ever attended the caucuses. That was in 1980 when Bush won a seven-man race with 33,500 votes.

Robertson appeals to a group of people -- many of them Democrats -- who haven't participated in the caucuses. If they participate this year, turnout goes up. But to what level no one knows.

"He {Robertson} is a wild card," said state GOP chairman Michael Mahaffey. "He is bringing new people into the process. You wonder how many of them there are and where they are coming from."

During the months before Robertson announced his candidacy, his supporters gathered 40,000 signatures urging him to run, according to John Miller, Robertson's state coordinator.

The signers didn't commit themselves to voting for the television evangelist, and many probably won't. Nonetheless, 40,000 Iowans have expressed a degree of interest in Robertson's candidacy through the petitions, and his campaign knows how to contact them.

With the caucus about three months away, no other candidate has a list anywhere near as large. At the time of the straw poll, Bush had a list of 12,000; Kemp 2,000.

This might not sound like much in a state with 2.8 million people. But a small, highly motivated group of people can exert a disproportionate influence in the delegate-selection process here.

The Iowa party caucuses are essentially neighborhood meetings, held in 2,500 schools, firehouses and living rooms across the state in the dead of winter. They are a test of political organization as much as anything else.

In 1980, the key to Bush's success was a list of 9,000 supporters Bond put together over several months. Bond matched the 9,000 names up with the 2,500 precincts. Each supporter was mailed a caucus kit that included Bush campaign material, the names of other Bush supporters living nearby, directions on where to go caucus night and instructions on what to do once there. The kits were followed up with phone calls, reminding people about caucus night.

The petition lists offers Robertson a chance to do the same thing, and his rivals understand the potential. "If he gets 40,000 people, he wins," said one campaign official.

Robertson's base is religious, not political, rooted in the charismatic wing of the Christian evangelical movement.

As founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and former host of a popular religious television show, "The 700 Club," he is a key leader in this movement.

Will Lynch, who works as a liaison to evangelical and "right-to-life" groups for Republican presidential candidate Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.), said there may be 30,000 charismatic evangelicals in Iowa who provide a convenient political network for Robertson.

The chief organizer of the rally Kaytee Davis attended in West Burlington, is a case in point. She is a dynamic young woman named Sharon Rexroth, who says, "I'm not afraid to tell other people about the peace I find in Jesus.

"I am an evangelical Christian. I'd say 70 percent of the people who attended the forum {rally} were evangelicals," she said in an interview. "They weren't all from one church, but they share some of the same beliefs. They're conservative people. They are people who want someone who has the courage to stand up and say what's right. We want to get back to basics in government."

Rexroth is the kind of campaign worker every politician wants on his side -- articulate, attractive and well known in her community. Married to a chiropractor, she was "Iowa Mother of the Year" in 1981.

She is also a registered Democrat, who wouldn't be involved in a Republican presidential campaign if it weren't for Robertson. She first came in contact with his campaign through her church, the First Assembly of God.

During services one Sunday, she signed a petition urging Robertson to run. Not long after, a Robertson organizer called on her. She readily agreed to head the candidate's campaign in her area.

"Christians are tired of being the silent majority," Rexroth said. "For too long, many Christians felt it was wrong to mix politics and religion. But as we've lost so many different rights -- like prayer in school -- we've had to get involved."

There are scores of highly committed Robertson supporters like Rexroth across Iowa. They differ in age, income and occupation. But "they share a common vision of the Judeo-Christian ethic, and they want their views heard," said state GOP chairman Mahaffey.

It is difficult to define their agenda. In interviews, Robertson supporters mention things like opposition to abortion and support for prayer in schools.

But they prefer to talk in broader terms. Norman Foerster, a farm equipment salesman from Story City, said: "I see our country facing a real moral dilemma. I was looking for someone who saw that as an issue and had the courage to stand up and speak out. Robertson does that. I see him something as other than a politician, almost an antipolitician."

They have a highly personal attachment to the candidate, one seemingly not shaken by recent reports about financial irregularities and falsifications in his resume.

Evangelicals aren't strangers to Iowa politics. In 1980, for example, 20 percent of Iowa voters in a Des Moines Register poll called themselves "born again" Christians or evangelicals; 28 percent of those voting for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said they were evangelicals.

Kemp and Dole have courted evangelicals. But no presidential candidate here has ever relied so much on churches to launch his candidacy as Robertson.

This has caused some tension.

Former national Republican chairman Mary Louise Smith harshly criticized Robertson and his followers for promoting "intolerance" and using the GOP "as a vehicle for institutionalizing their religious views."

"If the Republican Party lets itself be taken over by fundamentalist religious views and it becomes almost exclusively that, it will survive for a little while and then self destruct, because it won't provide a foundation of a party," she told The Des Moines Register.

Robertson supporters don't like this kind of talk. They see themselves as a healthy, positive "new force" in the party. "Our people have energy and drive," said Dick Hardy, a Robertson leader in the Des Moines area. "It {politics} is all new to most of them. So they have the zeal to get in the trenches.

"After you've been around a while, it's hard to get excited about every campaign that comes along," said Hardy, business manager of First Assembly of God Church here, one of the state's largest. "New blood is needed all the time in politics."

"In my mind, there's too much fat in the Republican Party," Hardy added. "The way you get rid of fat is movement. And we are moving."