FORT DODGE, IOWA, JAN. 31 -- At the Gephardt for President headquarters on Central Avenue, Jennie Powers reports that "the hard count is up . . . we're going to win, no doubt about it."

At the Simon for President headquarters four doors away, David Hearn is convinced "the depth of support for Simon is still here. People are looking for someone solid who they can trust. Paul Simon is that man."

Around the corner on North 8th Street, at the Dukakis for President headquarters, Dennis O'Farrell sees it differently. "I think it's really close," he said. "I tell you, Dukakis will win, but it's a real horse race in Fort Dodge."

With the Iowa precinct caucuses a week away, the battle for Fort Dodge -- and the rest of Iowa -- is drawing toward a frantic three-way finish.

Campaign workers are worried about the "hard count," "the leaners" and the "undecideds." "Mock caucus" rehearsals are being held. Democrats who have been telephoned repeatedly are being called again.

Jennie Powers knows it is time for the personal touch. From nearly three decades in the political trenches, "I know there are people you can sway," she whispers.

Just the other day, she said, an old acquaintance told her, "Jennie, I've been thinking about it and I've decided I can live with this Dukakis guy of yours. I trust you. You always pick a winner."

"I told him, 'No. No. Gephardt is the guy,' " Powers continued. "He thought for a minute, then said, 'Okay, I can go with him, too.' "

Powers, a retired department store clerk, and several dozen other volunteers and paid staff members, have been fighting the battle of Fort Dodge for months. The same kind of warfare is going on among Republican activists in the county. It is an intense game, pitting neighbors and old allies against each other. "You can put in 60 hours a week at this real easy," Powers said.

She devotes herself to this fight because this is Iowa and she is a party activist. Presidential politics is more than just candidates or the issues here, it is a major winter sport.

"This is the greatest place in the world for a political junkie," said Marshall Jones, who supports Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). "In Iowa, you have to play. It's a game. Politics is the greatest game going. Caucus night it all ends. So you do all you can, and hope you come up with a superstar."

In no other state do candidates devote so much effort to courting activists, who number only about 100 here in Webster County and about 5,000 statewide. They do it because a few activists can make a big difference here -- as demonstrated by Jimmy Carter's 1976 Democratic caucus victory, George Bush's 1980 GOP caucus win and Gary Hart's surprising second-place finish in the 1984 Democratic caucuses.

Only a fraction of eligible voters participate. In Webster County, no more than 1,300 of the 9,936 registered Democrats and 1,000 of its 4,208 registered Republicans are expected to attend the caucuses that will be held a week from tonight.

They are hardly typical American voters, given the intensity of their involvement and often their political viewpoints. But in Iowa, their power far exceeds their numbers. Next Monday night, they will help launch some candidacies and sink others. At least for a night, the political world will wait and watch them.

Fort Dodge, founded as a frontier outpost to keep peace between the Sac and Pottawattamie Indians, represents the presidential race in miniature.

In more recent times, until the 1980s, this northwest Iowa city of about 29,000 was a prosperous meatpacking and retail center. Today, in the words of one resident, Fort Dodge is "a packing-house town without a packing house."

Two of the city's largest employers, Hormel and Iowa Beef Packing, closed plants here in the early 1980s, just as the surrounding farm economy went into its worst tailspin since the Great Depression.

More than 1,100 packing plant jobs were lost. The price of farm land dropped 60 percent, home values 50 percent, and hundreds of families moved away.

"We had a lot of divorces. A lot of bankruptcies. A lot of cars and houses repossessed. We had some fellas who died and was probably suicides, but the families didn't say," said Paul Fortune, president and business agent of United Food and Commerical Workers Union Local P31.

"I don't think a lot of people have recovered mentally or financially," he said.

The first rule of caucus campaigns should be: "All politics is personal."

The activists got involved for a host of reasons: a past favor, a personal visit, a word-of-mouth endorsement, peer pressure, blood relationships, local political turf wars, the sheer frenzied thrill of pursuit and, of course, that intangible called chemistry.

Mark Brownlee, a young Fort Dodge attorney, heads efforts for Vice President Bush here because Brownlee's brother-in-law, George Wittgraff, is Bush's Iowa chairman.

John Foley, an aggressive young bank president, volunteered to head Sen. Robert J. Dole's (R-Kan.) campaign here to repay an old favor. "Let's just say I owed him one," Foley said.

Seven years ago, he explained, Dole "rolled out the red carpet" when Foley was angling for an appointment to a federal credit board. He did not get the position (he was only 27 at the time), but he has not forgotten the favor.

Rep. Jack Kemp's (R-N.Y.) hopes took a dive when Bill Ashby, Kemp's Webster County coordinator, won a part in a community theater production of "Evita" and spent much of January in rehearsal. If Kemp expects to do well in Iowa, "it will have to happen somewhere else. Bush and Dole are too ingrained here," said Ashby, adding that he would not be shocked if former television evangelist Pat Robertson won the county.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) got an early jump in Fort Dodge.

Gephardt's first big catches were Jerry and Shari Fitzgerald, the city's best-known Democratic family. A former majority leader of the state House, Jerry Fitzgerald ran unsuccessfully for governor, twice, and for Congress once. Shari Fitzgerald is one of the state's best political organizers.

Both could be expected to be involved in one presidential campaign or another. In 1984, Shari Fitzgerald supported Hart, but she said she wouldn't support him again. "After 1984, the morals question was talked about Iowa-Democrat to Iowa-Democrat," she said.

Jerry Fitzgerald started hearing good things about Gephardt in 1983. He recalls being told by one House Democratic leader that Gephardt was "one of the biggest up-and-comers in Congress. He went on and on about Gephardt, about how well he worked with House members and senators getting things done, not just issuing press releases," he said.

Fitzgerald identified with that. During his years in the Iowa state legislature, he thought of himself as a workhorse, not a show horse. The next year, Fitzgerald attended a party gathering in St. Louis, Gephardt's hometown. "He gave me a ride to the airport," Fitzgerald said. "We got talking about our families, and I liked what he said."

By 1986, Gephardt was testing the presidential waters. When he visited Fort Dodge, he stayed at the Fitzgerald house, and they introduced him to a number of party activists. Shari Fitzgerald liked what she saw. "I think he looks and acts presidential," she said. "I liked his style of leadership."

Jerry Fitzgerald became an Iowa cochairman for Gephardt; Shari Fitzgerald took on the day-to-day management of the campaign in the Fort Dodge region and volunteer recruitment statewide.

They brought some of the hardest-working Democratic activists in the county, including Jennie Powers, with them, giving Gephardt a continuing edge here. One recent week, these volunteers, working almost around the clock, hand-addressed, stamped and sealed 57,000 letters to senior citizens statewide.

Other Democratic activists say the Fitzgeralds have helped Gephardt out-organize other candidates, but there has been a downside. "I'd like to think because we're for Gephardt everyone would be for Gephardt," said Shari Fitzgerald. "But anyone in this business as long as we've been carries baggage."

Her baggage is a domineering, hard-driving style. "Some people thinks she's too pushy," said one friend. "She works people to death. She burns them up."

Biden made a big impression campaigning here in the summer of 1986 for John P. Roehrick, who was trying to unseat Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). On return visits, Biden found activists receptive.

Eventually a group of Fort Dodge's most active Democrats joined the Biden team, including Kim Motl, the county Democratic chairman; Richard Inman, the former chairman; state Rep. Rod Halvorson; Jean Casey, a longtime party activist; and David Hearn, a local optician.

When Biden withdrew from the race over charges of plagarism, the group was in demand. "Everyone wanted our support," Motl recalls.

Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt (D), Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D), Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Simon each met privately with the group of 16. "It was like being recruited for a college baskeball team," said Hearn, who was the chairman of the Biden group.

Gore was eliminated after Hearn, a part-time rock musician and song writer, got in an argument with Gore over the efforts of his wife, Tipper Gore, to censor rock lyrics. Babbitt fell by the wayside because the group didn't think he could win.

At 12:30 one morning in late October, around a table at the Larimore Ballroom, the Biden group decided to transform themselves into the Simon group. Simon instantly became Gephardt's chief rival in the battle for Fort Dodge.

With most of the hard-core activists in other camps, Dukakis was lucky to find Dennis and Edwina (Denny and Edi) O'Farrell. Actually, a young Princeton graduate named Paul Apostolidas, who came to Fort Dodge in September to organize for Dukakis, found them.

Taking advantage of Dukakis' Greek ancestry, Apostolidas moved in with Chris Chardoulias, a retired restaurant owner, and began calling Democratic activists.

The O'Farrells, who had been "shopping" for a candidate for months, were receptive. "The big Greek hand came on the big Irish arm, and I was sold," said Dennis O'Farrell.

Two things about Dukakis appealed to him. One was Dukakis' emphasis on economic development. "If there's anything that is needed in Fort Dodge, Iowa, it is a Massachusetts Miracle," he said.

The other was the Kennedy connection. Dennis O'Farrell is a big, friendly Irishman whose first political hero was John F. Kennedy. A picture of the late president still hangs on his living room wall. "For us, the fact that the Kennedys are behind Dukakis made a big difference," he said.

Edwina O'Farrell's family roots in the Fort Dodge area go back to 1850, and she is related to some of best-known lawyers, teachers, businessmen and Democratic Party leaders in the community. This year almost the entire extended family is in the Dukakis camp. That group and the outside resources the campaign has poured in here are Dukakis' strength.

The campaign's weakness is a shortage of true activists. This has put a greater burden on Dukakis' paid field staff.

Cathy Engle and Joyce DeHaan, who head the Babbitt team in Fort Dodge, feel outgunned. So does City Councilwoman Jane Burleson, Democrat Jesse L. Jackson's best-known local supporter.

Jackson has made two visits to Fort Dodge, but there are only about 1,200 blacks here and Burleson, the city's first black elected official, complains that many of them "just don't seem to have the interest in politics they should."

"In the back of my mind, I know he {Jackson} can't win, but at least we can give him some support and confidence," she said.

Engle became interested in Babbitt when she read a profile of him in the Des Moines Register. "Right away I felt that this was my candidate. I liked what he had to say about the environment. I liked the idea that he had been elected in a conservative Republican state," she recalled.

Engle mailed a letter to Babbitt. When a Babbitt campaign organization meeting was announced, she and her husband, Rick, an attorney, eagerly went. Only one other couple showed up -- their next door neighbors, Joyce and Ed DeHaan, a local doctor.

Joyce DeHaan and Cathy Engle became county cochairmen. It has been tough going ever since. The national campaign sent Bob Wagenfehr, a senior at Northern Arizona State, out to help organize. He moved in with the DeHaans.

But there was no storefront to work in, no coworkers to pal around with, no candidate visits. Supporters were few and far between. "We're a real shoestring operation," Wagenfehr said.

"He {Babbitt} isn't doing as well as he ought to here," said Cathy Engle. "Bruce Babbitt seems to be everyone's second choice."

"We're not throwing in the towel by any means," added Joyce DeHaan, sitting in the Engle's comfortable living room. "But this isn't one of Bruce Babbitt's strongholds."

Wagenfehr, who had been listening quietly, smiled, then said bravely, "I hope there's a groundswell out there somewhere."