DES MOINES, NOV. 8 -- The ultimate target is the presidency of the United States, but for Laura May, a 23-year-old Arizonan who has been working here for Bruce Babbitt since last year, the immediate objective was much more mundane: to put "Babbitt for President" signs at key locations in Veterans Auditorium where network television cameras would be sure to see them.

May and several dozen others -- armed with signs and battle-plan maps -- had assembled outside the auditorium at 1:45 a.m. Saturday. They spent the night in sleeping bags in a driving rain to make sure they would be ahead of the Dukakis, Gephardt, Gore, Jackson and Simon supporters who would also charge into the auditorium when it opened in the morning to post their signs in the cavernous hall, venue for Saturday night's Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner.

Fourteen hours after the doors opened, the six Democrats who want to be president would take their turns at the microphone, struggling with an unforgiving sound system to be heard by nearly 8,000 Iowa activists who came from all corners of the state to fill the hall, which by nightfall had been transformed into a brightly colored political bazaar.

The dinner was the biggest event of Saturday, Nov. 7, a day that offered a revealing glimpse at both parties' 1988 candidates and their activist supporters; at the excitement and drudgery of what they do, and at a presidential-selection process that often refuses to be tamed or orchestrated despite the efforts of these dedicated political warriors.

Ten presidential candidates -- six Democrats and four Republicans -- found it prudent on Saturday to be in Iowa, a state where they have already collectively spent 672 days in this campaign and where they employ 217 paid staff workers in addition to their volunteer activists.

With the election one year from today, most Americans -- and even most Iowans -- have paid attention only to the slips and spills of the 1988 presidential race. But for several thousand intensely competitive party activists here, the campaign is entering its final stretch. The Feb. 8 Iowa precinct caucuses are only three months away.

The realization that the finish line is in sight generated the energy visible at 8 a.m. Saturday, when the doors were thrown open at Vets Auditorium, and "Sign Wars" began. A screaming, placard-toting horde streamed toward the balconies.

"I felt I was going to be trampled. The people were pushing and shoving and yanking. For a minute, I thought I was finished," said Beth Deppe, carrying an armful of "Simon for President" signs. "It was like being inside a pinball machine."

Laura May of the Babbitt staff acknowledged that "none of this gets you anything except maybe a good shot on national TV if you're lucky. A lot of what you do is just to let people know you're in the race."

While their supporters fought for position in the hall at that early hour, four of the candidates were thousands of miles away at a party forum in Florida, another was at a speech in Maine and another was at a breakfast in Iowa.

In addition, two were busy making seat-of-the-pants strategy judgments about how to deal with an issue -- their long-ago use of marijuana -- they had no idea until the day before would find its way into the presidential campaign. Meanwhile, four Republicans were preparing for a day that would have them trolling for votes through towns such as Oelwein, Decorah, Waterloo and Brandon.Morning

At 9:04 a.m., a solemn, 15-vehicle caravan -- including two bulletproof limousines, three press vans and two state police cars -- pulled up to the Maynard Cafe on Main Street in Maynard, Iowa, population 561, as a Secret Service helicopter hovered overhead, scanning the smoky skies for trouble.

The vice president of the United States leaped from the rear of a black limo and, surrounded by guards, headed into the tiny cafe.

He stepped up to the counter and ordered coffee and a doughnut. Waitress Gwenneth Vanderfee was startled.

"This is not an illusion," George Bush assured her cheerily.

He was simply a man on the road who wanted a quick cup of coffee. But Bush couldn't resist shaking a few hands before he left. "Hope I'm not interrupting a quiet cup of coffee," he said, stooping over a booth.

For Bush, this was not a routine event. In the heavily scripted world in which he operates, Bush almost never makes unscheduled stops. His every move is protected by a phalanx of Secret Service agents and his appearances are planned to the last minute.

Three months before the Iowa caucuses, Bush was in pursuit of a few Iowa voters. But he did it in a big way. He applied all the perks and advantages of his incumbency to the task of wooing them this day as he visited Oelwein, Waverly, Waterloo, Brandon and Cedar Rapids.

Even the big C141 plane that carried his armored limo from Washington got in the act. It was the largest plane ever to land at the Mason City Airport, and Bush aides turned out a crowd of several hundred to watch the "car plane" touch down Thursday night. A picture of the event appeared on the front page of the Mason City paper.

As Bush's caravan moved south on State Highway 150 toward Oelwein, population 7,564, Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor, was also at work in small-town Iowa. It was the 82nd day in the state for the darkest of the dark horses in the Democratic race, and there were signs of fatigue in his face.

When his wake-up call came at 5:45 a.m., Babbitt thought he "really didn't want to do this." But three hours later, he was upbeat.

"It's not physical fatigue. I'm careful about my routine. It's the mental fatigue you have to fight," he said as his small chartered plane headed for the town of Bloomfield. "There's a constant struggle to be fresh. I try to lock in on the people, the town, the event."

Babbitt said he had no illusions about where he stood in the race. "I'm really way back. I have a long way to go," he said. "On one hand you see it percolating and on the other you look at the calendar and the days coming up. But it's a nice kind of tension, and it makes me resist the urge to take three days off."

Bush's first scheduled stop was at Pirillos Sportsmen Restaurant in Oelwein, an old railroad town in northeast Iowa. There were 450 people waiting for him. Many of them, like the Rev. David Hubble, pastor of First Baptist Church, lean toward other candidates. They came to look at the vice president. "This is small-town Iowa, and this is big-time stuff," said Hubble, who favors Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).

"This is sheer heaven," Bush told the crowd along the campaign trail. "I like this kind of thing."

After a short speech, he plunged into the crowd. Even in the simple task of handshakes and smiles, he used the props and aids of incumbency. Tim McBride, his personal assistant, helped him pass out pre-signed "autograph cards," with a gold seal, fine script and Bush's signature on them.

The vice president's official photographer, David Valdez, snapped pictures of Bush and anyone willing to pose with him. In a few weeks, autographed pictures will appear in Iowa mailboxes.

The approach was slow and methodical. Nothing illustrated this better than the 3-by-5-inch card carried by Rich Bond, one of Bush's top national strategists.

The card carried the vital statistics of every county Bush visited: the number of Republican caucus-goers, the number of precincts, the votes Bush received there in 1980. In Fayette County, where Oelwein is located, Bush was supported by 279 of the 1,086 caucus-goers in 1980.

Bond wanted more this year, and campaign workers were hard at work signing up people before Bush arrived.

"Sign 'em up on the way in. Perform well, and recontact them," he said. "Then it's up to the two natures -- mother nature and human nature." Afternoon

At a Holiday Inn in West Des Moines, the Iowa Right to Life Committee held its state convention. Two Republican candidates were on the luncheon menu; six weeks earlier, three presidential hopefuls had addressed a meeting of a rival "pro-life" group, Iowans for Life.

The caucuses are an important way for interest groups to hitch onto the presidential parade -- and they, like the candidates, grow more sophisticated with each new campaign.

Before Kemp and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) arrived, antiabortion leaders unveiled a slickly produced 19-minute training video. Titled "1988: If you care . . . you'll be there," it described the caucuses and how to participate in them.

"We in Iowa have a unique opportunity to help formulate national policy," Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa) said on the tape. "Use the Iowa caucuses to your own best advantage," advised Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa).

The tape is to be shown on home video cassette recorders throughout the state. "Planned Parenthood held its kickoff press conference in Iowa last Wednesday, so the battle lines have been drawn!" proclaimed Sandy Faucher, director of the National Right to Life political action committee, who flew in for the convention.

But a different battle line was about to be drawn on this afternoon. A dozen reporters and a few camera crews were encamped in the Holiday Inn lobby, awaiting the arrival of Kemp, then Dole. Abortion was the last thing on their minds.

They knew that within the hour Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg would withdraw his name from consideration for the Supreme Court and that disclosures about his past marijuana use already had prompted two Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Babbitt, to confess to having tried marijuana in their youth.

Kemp strode into the lobby, trailed by a small cluster of aides. The reporters quickly encircled him. Klieg lights flared; cameras rolled. "Congressman, have you ever smoked marijuana?" came the leadoff question, from NBC's Tom Pettit.

"Nope. Don't plan to, either."

With the interrogation instantly shorn of mystery, all that was left were a few moments of lifeless probing. Is this an appropriate issue in a presidential campaign? Should Ginsburg have dropped out? Kemp handled them all easily, until one reporter, to the nervous giggles of the rest of the pack, asked if Kemp's staff were also drug-free. "Oh, wow," he said, with the look of a man who had never thought to think about such a thing.

Two boys, neither more than 10 years old, stood transfixed a few yards back. "That's Ginsburg," one finally whispered to the other, pointing to Kemp. "That guy must be the judge, you know, Ginsburg."

At the luncheon, the focus shifted to abortion. "We've been taking casualties at the rate of 4,000 a day," said Bob Dopf, a pro-life leader who introduced Dole. Dole talked about electability; Kemp talked about the moral and spiritual imperative to oppose abortion.

Both were scheduled to be at another West Des Moines hotel, a few miles away, for a live televised forum sponsored by the Iowa Homebuilders Association. Former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV (R) was also on the panel.

Dole arrived late, slipping through a stage curtain into his seat; the debate was already 20 minutes old. "I followed Jack Kemp at the last event," he explained at his first opportunity. Then, alluding to his rival's legendary long-windedness, he added: "And as Jack said himself, he takes an hour and a half to watch '60 Minutes.' " Everyone in the live audience laughed -- including Eddie Mahe Jr., a veteran Washington political operative who had been hired by the homebuilders to make sure their forum came off smoothly.

The Democrats, meanwhile, were busy on other fronts.

Babbitt spent part of the afternoon in his $32-a-day hotel suite. "Hattie {his wife} climbed into bed last night and asked, 'Do I smell mildew?' " quipped Babbitt, who comes from a wealthy family and often makes wry jokes about his campaign's money woes and spartan living conditions. He was tinkering with his Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech. Fourteen people had had a hand in drafting it, but Babbitt still didn't like the ending.

The first order of business was to expunge the three Ginsburg jokes (including a reference to the "highest court in the land"). They'd been written before Babbitt made himself a part of the marijuana story by delivering a preemptive confession of his own brief use of the drug during his days as an antipoverty worker in the South.

"Have any of the journalists on this plane ever smoked marijuana?" Babbitt had coyly asked that morning on a campaign charter flight from Bloomfield to Des Moines -- and by so doing invited them to ask the same of him. Minutes earlier, at a campaign breakfast in Bloomfield, his Iowa campaign manager, Chris Hamel, had alerted him to reports from campaign headquarters that all the candidates were being bombarded with the question.

At about the same hour Babbitt "fessed up" on a four-seat, twin-engine plane, Gore held a news conference in Miami to do the same thing. In Des Moines, late that afternoon, he would hold still another confessional before the press -- a much bigger one, with more than 100 reporters in attendance.

"Are you going to stay in the race?" came the first question. Gore handled that one, and all the others that followed, with an ease and poise and self-confidence that quickly overmatched press curiosity.

"After about 20 minutes, the reporters moved onto another subject, so you've got to call that a win for Gore," said Kevin Sweeney, a former press secretary to Gary Hart and no stranger to tense news conferences on the "character" issue, the latest fad in presidential politics. Sweeney was in Iowa helping the Sierra Club promote its candidate forum.

The sudden intrusion of the drug issue triggered its share of nervous jollity among reporters and campaign staffers -- most of whom are "baby boomers," and many of whom have memories of tokes and joints during youth.

"Why doesn't Bruce go up to Al tonight on the dais and flash the peace sign?" one campaign manager deadpanned to another. "I've got the perfect answer to the question about whether you used drugs in college," said one Washington-based consultant. "It's, 'Hey man, I don't know. The sixties are kind of a blur.' "

But given how dangerous the "character issue" has proven to be this year for candidates, no one quite knew whether to laugh it off. "I'd like to think it won't have much impact," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "But that's the way I felt about some other things that have happened to candidates this year. After awhile, you start to question your judgment."

Gore's strategists had been planning for weeks to make news Saturday night by attacking the Iowa caucuses. Events overtook that, and the focus on the caucuses was lost in a puff of smoke. Fate was kinder to some other candidates.

The staff of Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) had gone to pains to rent a satellite truck and park it outside Vets Auditorium. By prearrangement, Simon was able to do a series of "live" late-afternoon interviews with local television stations from Omaha to Chicago. His aides gave him cue cards so he wouldn't mix up the first names of the six anchor people with whom he spoke, rapid-fire, within a matter of minutes.

After the technological wizardry, a stroke of good fortune touched the Simon campaign. CBS anchorman Dan Rather, in Des Moines to do a political story, requested an interview with Simon, and the two wound up marching down the street in front of Vets Auditorium for a block, with CBS cameras whirring as Simon supporters waved banners and a hired band played "Happy Days Are Here Again."

Simon's national campaign manager, Brian Lunde, and his Iowa campaign manager, Pat Mitchell, were so ecstatic at what was playing out before them that they stood off at a distance giving one another "high-fives."

"We got Rather to be the grand marshal of our parade!" Mitchell shouted, to no one in particular.

Behind them, all was in readiness for the evening's big event. Candidates' hospitality stands were filling up with activists who had spent all day on buses to be there. Hot-air balloons were floating by and -- the only damper on the festivities -- pro-life activists were picketing. "15 million future Democrats have been murdered by abortion," one sign said.Evening

Inside the hall, the crowd settled down for five hours of speeches, roast pork, beer and choreographed sign-waving.

Some attending were longtime party regulars, others were newcomers bused to the event and given free tickets by the various campaigns.

Jim Eckardt, 33, a hospital worker from St. Louis, sat alone with a pint of beer, eight rows from the ceiling, cheering madly every time the name of his home-town favorite, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), was mentioned. "I haven't had this much fun since the World Series," he said. "It's kind of like a miniconvention." Indeed, half as many people were here Saturday as will be in Atlanta for the national convention next July.

The speeches were almost anticlimactic. There were no dramatic moments, few memorable lines. The words were often swallowed up by the cavernous auditorium. Several candidates looked worn and sounded flat.

It was their fifth joint appearance of the week; a sixth would follow Sunday. Babbitt made a stab at humor in his rewritten remarks.

"Al Gore and I have spent a lot of time explaining what we were doing in college," he said. "We have finally discovered a policy we agree on. It's called the statute of limitations."

It was nearly 11 p.m. when Gore, the last speaker of the evening, took the rostrum and attacked the Iowa caucuses for imposing "litmus tests" on the candidates. The speech didn't go over well with the Democratic political leaders of the state, who were seated at the head table.

"You know the line from the Janis Joplin song, 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose,' " said House Speaker Don Avenson, noting that Gore lobbed his broadside from the back of the Iowa pack, where his campaign has been mired all year.

Like many days of political ritual, this one ended early the next morning in a bar -- the Savery Hotel Bar -- with an endless round of war stories.

Gephardt forces camped out in the southeast corner of the bar; Dole people made a stand in hostile territory near the center.

Paul G. Kirk Jr., the Democratic National Committee chairman, worked one side of the bar; Susan Estrich, campaign manager for Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D), sat quietly talking on the other. Off to the side, surrounded by aides and supporters, was Jesse L. Jackson. It was 1:45 a.m., and last call had been sounded.

But Jackson, who doesn't drink alcohol, didn't move. "I'm just sitting here," he said, "getting a briefing for tomorrow's debate on the environment."

This story was based on reports by staff writers James R. Dickenson, Thomas B. Edsall, David Hoffman and Maralee Schwartz.