AMES, IOWA -- Trolling for political sentiment at the Pat Robertson rally at the United Senior Center was a bit dicey. Some people in the audience go there every day at approximately the hour of his appearance for their evening meal. Hungry for diversion, they had arrived a bit early.

A handsome gray-haired woman told an inquiring reporter that she was an independent, nowhere near deciding which party she will support at her precinct caucus, never mind which candidate. She is much more concerned about the morality of building a new prison. As the grandmother of two handicapped children, she thinks that a central facility for the handicapped would be much more to the point.

Her minister, Bill Raymond of the North Grand Church of Christ, said, "I would vote for Robertson, if that's what you're wondering about. We are in this together."

A glowing, ruddy Robertson swept into the balloon-hung room. He spoke of "a couple of things that are on my heart," mainly his plans for long-term care for the elderly. He asserted that his effort is "not one narrow campaign for some small group of people." He smilingly scolded the news media -- "I think they know I am going to do well in Iowa, and they don't want me to."

The most fervent response came from a group of young volunteers, the portable cheering section that followed him everywhere on his multi-town bus tour. They yipped and cheered most when he recalled his Ames triumph of last September, a straw vote win over all comers.

The pilgrim's progress is a matter of concern to his rivals. Exact numbers of evangelicals, fundamentalists and pentecostals are elusive. A Des Moines Register poll gives Robertson 11 percent. No one preaches Robertson from the pulpit for fear of losing tax exemption. But tales are told of underground caucus-training sessions and take-no-prisoners turnout plans.

Robertson, running as a businessman, not a clergyman, talked confidently of his "invisible army." He asked the Ames audience how many had been called by pollsters and chuckled when few hands went up. His calculation: His voters, not registered and first-time caucus-goers, do not make pollsters' lists.

The Republicans are spooked by Robertson just as Democrats are by Gary Hart. The Democratic campaign is a race of tortoises, with Hart, the wounded hare, limping along beside. Michael Dukakis, Paul Simon and Richard Gephardt trade first place in the polls every few days. Jesse Jackson did best at their last debate.

Robertson left in his wake one small, bubbly woman, who had come for dinner. Her choice? "I'm waiting for Gov. Cue-Mo," she whispered.

At the First Federated Church in Des Moines, the congregation gathered for a Sunday night talk on homosexuality as sin and was perfectly willing to talk politics. First Federated is Iowa's premier evangelical church and much-courted by GOP candidates. The closest politics has come to the altar is in the person of Robert Dole's Iowa campaign manager, Sen. Charles Grassley, a visitor who has been allowed to say the final prayer.

A rushed, random sampling showed Robertson ahead, but not unanimously.

Ron Larson, a postal worker, is for him because of his lack of involvement in Washington. "He is a leader on his own." He had weighed the field with characteristic Iowa care. His verdict: "Bush is too wishy-washy. Haig is an egotistical maniac. Dole has too many ties to Congress -- he would compromise himself through the presidency."

The Flemings, Betty and Stuart, like Kemp's "godly principles" but changed their registration from Democratic to work for Robertson.

Bill Wade, a tall, tweedy marketing director, swung between Dole and Robertson, finally choosing Dole because he is "afraid that Robertson would get eaten alive by politicians in Washington."

Mike Canady, a property manager, started out for Kemp but switched to Robertson because, after watching him at the Ames straw poll, he "experienced a stronger leader."

One woman, a minister's wife, said she's "more comfortable with Bush."

Dick Shulz, a shipping clerk, is for Kemp, and thinks Robertson "should stay with the church instead of trying to convert the country to religion."

One minister declared for Robertson because "those of us who know Christ have been uninvolved in the political process and so have contributed to some of the problems we have today."

The pastor of First Federated, Tom Allen, pondered the prudence of "sharing" his decision for fear it might be taken as a church endorsement. Upon being assured that the distinction would be made, he said, somewhat surprisingly, "A Dole-Kemp ticket would be very meaningful for me."