FORT DODGE, IOWA, JAN. 9 -- If political campaigns are like markets, the penny stocks outperformed the blue chips Friday night among at least one small group of Iowa investors.

Eight Republican activists, including the current and former GOP county chairmen in this small farm city in north central Iowa, gathered to watch the Republican presidential debate on television at the invitation of The Washington Post, and they came away lauding the long shots, especially former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV.

"He came off more statesmanlike than I've ever seen him," said Roger Huetig, one of six viewers who were not du Pont supporters at the start of the debate but who said afterward their opinion of him had risen.

"Everything Pete du Pont had to say tonight, I liked," said Kim Alstott, 36, who owns a small business. "He's right about the education system being messed up, and he's right that the Soviets haven't changed. They still lie and cheat, and they still can't be trusted."

As for his party's two front-runners, Vice President Bush and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.), Alstott was underwhelmed. "Between the two of them, I could care less, because it's the same old garbage. All I heard was a lot of vague answers."

While not all the group's reviews of the front-runners were so stinging, Bush and Dole had only one moment in two hours that stirred any of the eight viewers. It was striking, and, because it is the one sound bite from this non-nationally televised debate being replayed on network news this weekend, it will reach a larger audience. Because Bush is the protagonist of that moment, he appears to be the debate's winner.

When Bush pointed a finger at the debate's host and moderator, Des Moines Register editor James P. Gannon, and said he resented the newspaper's claim that he has ducked questions about his role in the Iran-contra episode, there was applause in this room of Fort Dodge Republicans.

Bush showed what V.H. Boekelman, a former GOP county chairman here, later called a "don't mess with me, buddy," toughness, but there also was an important subtext to the attack for these Iowa Republicans, who consider the Register, the state's dominant newspaper, to be hopelessly liberal.

"I especially appreciated him going after the editor of the Register," Julia Boekelman, a secretary, said afterward.

"You know what we call the Register?" Alstott asked. "The Red Star."

Apart from his well-conceived choice of a target, Bush's handling of the Iran-contra question left some doubters. "I think he should come out and say exactly what he knows," said Mike Cormack, a high school senior who is planning to vote for former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. when he attends his first caucus on Feb. 8. "What happens if {Bush is} the nominee and something damaging comes out a month before the election?"

"What does he have to keep secret?" shot back Huetig, 40, a microbiologist and the current county chairman. "If they thought they could destabilize {Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah} Khomeini, that's something I would brag about." Huetig said he thought Bush could have spelled that out "more plainly."

But within this group, it was Dole's answers that left most disappointed. Boekelman, who is leaning toward Bush but likes Dole, said at the start of the evening that he was fond of Dole's witticisms. Afterward, he said there was a "flipness" to Dole he did not particularly appreciate. Erna Pollard, 70, the GOP county secretary, who said she has known Dole since 1957 and plans to vote for him, agreed that she could have done without his "digs."

Dole's substance did not fare any better than his style. When he spoke of compassion for the poor, blacks and family farmers, his appeals fell on deaf ears.

"My husband works very hard for his money and it's wrong for us to have to spend half of it on a welfare system that just plain doesn't work," said Bev Wells, a supporter of former television evangelist Pat Robertson.

"Not every family farm should be saved," said Huetig, who has relatives who farm. "If it's in the hands of an incompetent or a lazy person, why should it be saved?"

V.H. Boekelman attacked the system of farm subsidies with which Dole is closely identified. "We're paying farmers in Nebraska to take sub-marginal land {and} put it into production while we're paying farmers in Iowa to take number one fertilized land out of production. There's no common sense there."

The free-market approaches of du Pont, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Robertson all got a much warmer reception among this group, as did their hard-line stance on defense issues.

When Kemp uttered one of his signature lines on defense: "I'm not a hawk. I'm a dove. (Pause). A heavily armed dove," the room again broke into applause. And when Kemp spoke of tacking the Ten Commandments to the wall in schoolrooms, or when du Pont spoke of tough measures to get children off drugs, the group seemed more attentive than any time Bush or Dole spoke.

"I really wasn't very impressed with either of the front-runners," said Heutig.

Will the reactions make any difference in the caucus? Only one of the eight said his vote was changed by the evening, although one in eight is significant. Alstott, who says he's looking for someone with "guts and gumption," started the evening leaning toward Kemp. He liked what he heard, but it was du Pont who swept him off his feet. That's who he now plans to vote for.

By contrast, Marion Burnquist, 68, illustrated how voters sometimes base their choice on matters other than simple likes or dislikes. "If I thought he had any chance at all, I'd be for du Pont," she said.

When several of her fellow activists started ribbing her about not voting her convictions, she was unmoved. "She just wants to be on a winning team," kidded V.H. Boekelman.

"You better believe I do," Burnquist said. She is still trying to decide between Bush and Dole.