AMES, IOWA, FEB. 7 -- Bruce Babbitt is at the end -- or maybe the beginning -- and he doesn't know which it will be.

On his 117th day of campaigning in Iowa Saturday, it came to this: the former governor of Arizona donned long, pointed thermal boots, a blue face mask, blue knit cap and black helmet. With his wife, Hattie, and about 480 others, he mounted a bicycle and headed for the highway that runs from Perry to Rippey, Iowa -- 23 miles round trip. For the annual event known as the Bike Ride to Rippey (BRR), the temperature was 8 degrees, the wind chill factor minus 22.

Michael Bicks, a producer for ABC News who has been following Babbitt for months, recognized immediately that this would make a zany but irresistible picture of the last hours before Iowans Monday night begin the process by which the country will choose its next president.

"Do you realize," he said to Michael McCurry, Babbitt's press secretary, "that he will be on national television tonight looking like a space alien?"

"Well, at least he will be on," McCurry replied.

Since he began his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in July 1986 -- also on a bike ride, in blazing summer heat, across the state -- Babbitt has done everything he can to attract attention to his long-shot candidacy. Unlike some candidates such as Republican Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Democratic Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.), Babbitt accepted the Iowa caucuses for what they are -- the place where an obscure but determined candidate can burst into the national political consciousness.

More than a year ago, he dispatched one of his top aides, Chris Hamel, to Des Moines. Since then, while Babbitt has been crisscrossing the country, riding bicycles and "standing up" at candidate debates, Hamel has stitched together a field organization that is among the best in the state.

The real Iowa contest pits Babbitt against Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). It is a four-man demolition derby to determine who will head into the New Hampshire primary next week with the look and feel of a winner. Babbitt calls his rivals "the Three Amigos."

With his expectations so low, Babbitt does not have to win here or even finish second to boost his candidacy. But he cannot afford to finish fourth or lower, and that, according to the latest Des Moines Register poll published today, is where he is.

"It's a bitch," Babbitt said. He had just met privately at the Mason City airport with Gary Hart, a chance encounter with the man who is only a ghost of the Democratic front-runner of a year ago. He thanked Hart for the kind things Hart has been saying about his campaign.

Behind what he called the mutual "face of joviality" that the candidates put on for their joint appearances, "it's tough for everybody," Babbitt said. "You get the great ego rewards, the adulation of the crowds, but there are tough times, moments of great pain or self doubt.

"You can see it in everybody," he continued. "You can see it in the fatigue, you can see it in the way they become kind of mechanical in speaking, you see it in the occasional outburst of temper. Most of all, you can sense it when a candidate is going through a tough period. So I just instinctively go up to people and say something like 'I understand what's going on.' "

Babbitt has had his share of tough times, but it has seldom shown in public. His is probably the most relaxed and good-natured of all the presidential campaign organizations -- a reflection of his own sense of humor -- and this in turn has helped reap Babbitt the most sympathetic press coverage of any of the candidates.

"I walked into this thing really pretty naive," Babbitt said. "I didn't really appreciate how intense and how demanding it would be." For more than a year, he said, he has been "locked up in a world in which there is no escape."

Monday night, that tight world of the marathon presidential campaign will begin to open up, much to the relief of everyone involved. Babbitt said he approaches Monday night with a sense of nostalgia. "It's kind of tough to leave," he said.

In Mason City, invigorated by the bike ride, Babbitt spoke at the Madonna Inn. The crowd was larger than expected, warm and appreciative. When an aide shouted from the back of the room that it was time to move on, Babbitt promised to conclude quickly.

Then he looked at the crowd and smiled. "I don't want to let you go," he said.