ALTOONA, IOWA, FEB. 8 -- The free people of Altoona turned out in such huge numbers to have their say in picking the next leader of the Free World that the little fire station here quickly began to resemble the stateroom scene in "A Night at the Opera."

In the past, the firefighters' training area, a space no larger than an elementary school classroom, has been more than enough to accommodate both Republican and Democratic caucuses in this farm town of 4,000 northwest of Des Moines.

It's not every state, of course, where partisans from both parties would be civil enough to hold such meetings in a single room. But this is Iowa, after all, where civility and neighborliness flourish alongside the corn and the beans.

Tonight, though, the lure of the caucuses overwhelmed the Altoona Fire Station. Half an hour before the sessions were due to come to order, the room was so jammed that movement was just about impossible.

"This will never work," said a spunky Democrat named Evelyn Davis, wearing a Jesse Jackson sticker on her gray sweater. "How am I going to find any other Jackson people if I can't even take one step out of this corner?"

"This tells you two things about Altoona," said Joe Leinen, a supporter of Vice President Bush. "One, we should have passed that bond issue for a new fire station. Two, the people are gung-ho to say something about who's going to be president."

The big turnout at the precinct caucuses here and all over Iowa reflected what has been obvious around the state this winter: Iowans are serious about the privileges and responsibilities of democratic government.

For weeks the two parties have been running television ads urging people to come out to the caucuses, the first step in the long road toward the presidential election next November. "After all," the advertisements pointed out, "a caucus doesn't take any longer than a basketball game."

No longer than a basketball game! In much of the country, people will turn away if they have to wait 10 minutes at the voting booth. But here in Altoona, the prospect of a long evening in an insanely crowded room was no deterrent.

By 7 p.m., the official caucus starting time, Republicans had crunched together on one side of the room and Democrats were huddled on the other. There was still a long line of people outside, waiting patiently to show their drivers' licenses and prove they live in the precinct.

Faced with the prospect of caucus gridlock, the precinct Republican chairman, David Leach, put in an emergency call to Pastor Harlan Winter at Altoona United Methodist Church down the road. With Winter's approval, the Republican

voters trooped out to the church

for their caucus, leaving the Democrats enough room to do their voting.

Down the road at the church, the Republicans elected Joe Leinen precinct chairman and quickly got down to the central business of the evening: the straw poll. Leinen removed the official ballots -- little squares of white paper -- from the purple trash bag where they had been stored and passed them around. In five minutes, the ballots were collected.

But then misfortune struck. A total of 155 people had signed in for the caucus, but there were only 144 ballots in the pile. What to do? Barb Miller, a Bob Dole backer, suggested that the mishap was no problem. "If you had more ballots than voters, yeah, that's trouble," she said. "But this way is okay." But the delegates supporting Pat Robertson, with their copies of the caucus rules on their knees, protested that it would be irregular to overlook the problem.

Meanwhile, back at the firehouse, the Democrats spent an hour debating a series of policy resolutions dealing with labor law, Social Security, and the like. Then they began the square dance of democracy, as backers of different candidates moved around the room to congregrate and elect delegates to the county conventions.

In the front corner next to the fire safety poster, Paul Simon's people drew together. Richard Gephardt's backers swarmed to the center of the room. Evelyn Davis looked everywhere for other Jackson backers; she ended up with three others in her corner. "Better than one," she said. "But it's not going to be enough to get a delegate."

And so Davis walked over to the Bruce Babbitt corner, to see if

any of the Arizonan's backers might want to switch to Jackson. There were no takers. She tried the smaller clique of Michael Duka- kis' people, but they, too, de- clined.

In the end, the Altoona Democrats were able to elect one delegate for Gephardt and one for Simon. Because none of the other candidates could win over enough people to become a "viable group," the precinct's third delegate was selected from the 15 people who steadfastly clung to the choice of "Undecided."

Meanwhile, back at the church, the Republicans spent more than an hour trying to figure out how to solve the mystery of the missing ballots.

They were just on the verge of starting over from scratch when a woman looked at her watch and moved that the caucus stand on that first ballot, flawed or not. The motion carried, with all but the Robertson delegates going along.

And so Leinen read the results, which roughly paralleled GOP caucuses all over the state: Dole got 62 votes, Robertson 47, Bush 13, Pete duPont 11, Jack Kemp 9 and Alexander Haig 0.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Leinen said. "I apologize for the mixup

we had here. But at least you all know that you spent this time in a good cause. You're deciding who is going to be the leader of our country."