DES MOINES -- With three weeks to go to their moment of truth, many Iowa Democrats lament that they are "confused."

The cause of their confusion, Gary Hart, did nothing for them in the recent debate that was supposed to clarify everything. The hope was that he would soar like an eagle over a flock of pigeons: he had cited the "lacklust" of the six other contenders as having forced him back into the race. But he never spread his wings.

The others pecked at each other with practiced ease and humor acquired over long months as a troupe. Hart was the new boy on the block, and once moderator James Gannon, editor of The Des Moines Register, put the adultery question to Hart, the rest simply ignored him.

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. needled Bruce Babbitt -- who is enjoying media chic -- for his self-righteousness toward those who don't accept his budget remedies. Gore also went after Rep. Richard A. Gephardt -- whose fortunes have taken a slight turn for the better -- for voting against a minimum-wage increase. And Babbitt literally took Sen. Paul Simon's breath away by taxing him for taking political action committee money. A full moment's silence passed before Simon could reassemble his jaws and his thoughts and bewail the evil of what he is doing.

The simon-pure liberal from Illinois is seen as the real front-runner here, although the latest Iowa poll shows Hart with a 9-point lead. Hart, attending a post-debate reception that was as dispirited as his performance, murmured that the format was "confining."

His wife, Lee, his shield and defender, was heard to say the next morning that it was difficult for her husband to give his world vision when the talk was about "biodegradable plastic made from corn." That was a reference to an intervention by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the ever-upbeat technocrat, who has the best-financed caucus operation in the state.

Iowa's attorney general, Tom Miller, who is supporting Babbitt, said flatly that "Hart is finished in Iowa."

That could well be the case, and Hart's deportment suggests it, but all the attention and emotion of the campaign are directed on him.

Iowa is perhaps the ideal state for a battered ex-front-runner to undertake an exercise in resurrection. Iowans are fair-minded to a fault; it would simply not occur to them to question his right to reenter the race. They are notoriously kind, and they are also religious. The repentent sinner -- Hart has grudgingly made the transition from "mistake" to "sin" -- has enormous appeal for them.

But if the attitudes in Iowa are favorable, the process is not. If there were a secret ballot, expectations would be different. But Iowa's precinct caucus system requires voters to declare their choice and march to a corner set aside for the like-minded. To declare for Hart could be hard for a husband whose wife has strict views on marital fidelity, or a labor voter whose union has committed to another candidate.

Giving up on Hart comes hard for some people, many of whom have known him since he first came here in 1972 peddling George McGovern. A mention of Donna Rice often brings a riposte about John F. Kennedy. Hart assiduously aped Kennedyesque gestures, and the more susceptible picked up on these calculated echoes. Seeing another tall and brainy fellow brought back thoughts of JFK's alleged philandering.

"They all do it," said a grandmotherly Des Moines florist shop manager. "Kennedy did, and he was a good president, wasn't he? Of course, we didn't know what he was doing at the time. We only found out later. But we do know about Hart, and I don't know what to do."

"If only," said a woman at a Dukakis labor rally a day after the debate, "he had waited until he got in."

The wear and tear of being a Hart follower is personified in a 27-year-old Davenport stockbroker -- "but not a yuppie" -- named James Kirkpatrick.

Last year, when Iowa was registering a resounding 65 percent for Hart, Kirkpatrick was co-coordinator of the Scott County Campaign. When the Donna Rice storm broke, Kirkpatrick wired Hart to hang in. For two months, he was the walking wounded. Finally, in July, he joined the Gephardt camp. But when Hart made his dramatic reentry on Dec. 13, Kirkpatrick agonized for two days, "because Gephardt is a fine man," and then returned to Hart. He's calling voters, raising money and has rented a Hart office across the river in Illinois. He doesn't think Hart can win in Iowa -- "this is a very moral state" -- but he is sure he won't be standing up alone at his precinct caucus.