DES MOINES -- Iowa is where it's all happening in politics in January, they told me. Throw a rock in any direction and you'll hit a candidate.

Then why couldn't I find Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.)?

I wasn't the only one lost in wintry Iowa last week. Four other reporters and a couple of Gephardt staff workers also were trapped in what turned out to be one of Campaign '88's versions of a magical mystery tour.

There is a necessarily symbiotic relationship between a candidate and the press during a presidential campaign. Because it is in everybody's best interest to ease the exchange of information between reporters and the campaigns they cover, we become part of the candidate's road show, paying our way but remaining at the mercy of the efficiency of its travel operation. Some January days in Iowa can be merciless.

Gephardt's schedule one day last week included four events: a meeting with Oskaloosa Democrats, a farm rally, a fund-raiser and a headquarters rally in St. Louis. That evening, the candidate was supposed to return to Des Moines for another candidates' debate. This was considered an easy day.

Gephardt, I should point out, made it to all of these events, except for the Oskaloosa stop, which was canceled because of weather that would have blown his small plane out of the sky. It was the six media people who got lost.

We should have received our first clue that this was not going to be a good day early on when the Iowa state trooper pulled us over. Because the four press and staff vehicles had been sent on ahead to a farm rally in Boone, there were no Secret Service agents or even a candidate with us to explain why we were cruising at close to 80 on a 65 mph highway.

One staff member leaped out to chat with the trooper, waving his hands and smiling in a friendly manner. The trooper smiled back. And then he instructed each of the four drivers to follow him to his squad car, where he took his time filling out four $33 speeding tickets.

Gephardt press aide Deborah Johns, riding with us in the van, groaned as we began scribbling down the details of the incident. "It's so hard to get the candidate good press and then the advance team gets us a speeding ticket," she muttered.

But our troubles had barely begun.

Waved on ahead by one of the staff workers in another car, our eager young driver, mortified by the speeding violation, broke away from the caravan to get us to the rally in time. He passed our exit, and we got lost.

I'm talking lost in Iowa, where the snow blows sideways off flat, treeless farms and blinds you even when nothing is falling from the sky. We kept looking for cows, figuring if they could survive, we could. We did not find any. We did find one dog, who appeared in the middle of a two-lane road as if challenging our right to be there. We swerved and, as all good reporters do, started swapping potential headlines for our obituaries ("Dog, Five Others Killed in

Iowa").

By now, everyone was peering at the map, searching for a way out. Three hours later, we found one. Arriving at the farm rally to find the other Gephardt cars leaving, we headed back to Des Moines for the flight to St. Louis for the headquarters rally.

The candidate, we were told at the airport, was 20 minutes ahead of us. So we climbed onto an eight-seat jet and headed for Missouri. In St. Louis, we saw the Gateway Arch, the mighty Mississippi River and a Marriott hotel that we suspected had warm rooms and good food. We did not see the candidate.

"Yup, he's gone," said a woman who was part of the stream of people leaving the Gephardt headquarters as we arrived. "He came and went."

It was about then that our shared sense of adventure began to fade. We started accusing the Gephardt campaign of a cruel hoax, concluding that the staff had led us to believe that the congressman was actually on the stump when in fact he was still somewhere in Des Moines, sipping hot soup and getting ready for that night's debate.

"I can't write a story," the frustrated USA Today reporter was telling her editor on the telephone. "I haven't even seen him all day."

Finally back at the airport we waited for our return flight to Des Moines. Then, as we trotted across the frozen runway to the small plane, one of our number cried out. There was The Candidate. And indeed, there was a tall red-haired man hopping out of a helicopter and getting into Gephardt's plane.

We were willing to be convinced.

Gephardt made it to the debate, and so did we. But by then we had a full-blown conspiracy theory in our heads -- based almost entirely on hunger, frustration and terminally chilled feet -- about whether Gephardt really existed.

The second day of campaigning exploded our theories. We saw him at farms, at senior citizen centers and in one-on-one interviews in Davenport, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and Dubuque. We were generally warm and we got to eat. At one stop, some of us even downed a little of the chili offered us by the intensely friendly Democrats in Davenport.

We were the only ones who got sick that night. But that's another story.