SAN DIEGO, NOV. 20 -- Donna Brazile had seen a few female candidates in her day, and Mary Landrieu, a Democratic assemblywoman running for Louisiana state treasurer, seemed a different creature altogether.
Landrieu, eldest child of former New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu, made no secret of her ambition. She did not shy from fund-raising.
Brazile noticed she charged into the office every day at 8 a.m. to work the phones. And she had the good sense to hire a savvy, aggressive campaign manager, namely Donna Brazile.
So Landrieu's victory this month came as no surprise to Brazile or to hundreds of other female organizers and officeholders who have gathered this weekend to try to reaffirm a revolution in American politics that, bit by bit, is pulling women into greater and greater power.
At a time when both a leading Democratic woman, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (Colo.), and a leading Republican woman, former ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, have backed away from presidential races, the National Forum for Women State Legislators here might be expected to feel a let-down.
Instead, with about a third of the nation's female state legislators in attendance, the conference is rumbling with campaign planning, fund-raising and idea-swapping to maintain a streak of state-level triumphs.
Most of the delegates here assert they have no doubt, as Women's Campaign Fund candidate services director Celinda Lake said to one panel audience, "that I am looking at the first woman president of the country."
This being the largest gathering of female state officeholders, most think that day will come through the small grass-roots advances in which they are involved.
At a preconference session on seeking higher office, which drew an overflow crowd, California political consultant Eileen Padberg, western regional director for Vice President Bush, looked sharply at her attentive audience. "The object of a campaign is to win, and not to be a kamikaze candidate," she said, alluding to the hundreds of women who have run as "issue" candidates with little money or professional help.
Padberg hit her points hard: Hire a professional campaign manager or at least buy a campaign plan from one. Have your chief of staff list all the things an opponent could use to defeat you.
Let the professionals do their job: "Every woman candidate I have ever dealt with has second-guessed the campaign strategy after running into some friend who had different ideas," she said.
At the last full-fledged forum four years ago, leaders of the sponsoring Center for the American Woman and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University expressed the hope female legislators can double their numbers by 1987.
The progress has been more modest, an increase from 991 to 1,173 (15.7 percent), what CAWP director Ruth B. Mandel called "incremental progress, . . . which is still progress."
To expand that number, Lake said, female candidates should look for "open" seats, those with no incumbent running, as reapportionment opens new districts, changes others and raises the chance of male officeholders seeking other seats.
Women should look for vulnerable male officeholders and take some calculated risks against seemingly strong opponents who might give a woman a forum for later success, Lake said.
In particular, female assembly members up for reelection should buy advertising that spills outside their district and raises their name recognition for future, bigger campaigns.
Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, a donor network for Democratic congressional candidates, said female candidates should spend half their campaign time raising money.
Her group, an acronym for the slogan "Early Money Is Like Yeast," emphasizes the need for long-range planning. Lake held up the example of former senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) who, she said, identified the four states that might send a moderate Republican like himself to the Senate some day and relocated to one of them. Gorton was defeated in his reelection bid in 1986.
Women, several speakers said, are not used to such independent thinking. "We have lots of people dependent on us," Lake said.
But ambition and ego, said Brazile, who is black and is now a high official in the presidential campaign of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), is what is necessary.
A campaign needs a candidate like Landrieu, she said, who is "one of the boldest white women I've ever seen in my life."