Four hours after he told them good night, Akim Moore pulled his three elementary school-age children out of bed and sat them in front of the television set so they could watch Nelson Mandela at a town meeting in New York.

"The man was so dignified and yet he did not offend even his critics," said Moore, 42, a Washington cabdriver. "It made me think of Martin Luther King and the way he gave me goose bumps every time I heard his voice on the radio. I decided that my children had to see him so they know that great black leaders do not only exist in history books."

Victoria Escobar plans to take a day off from her job as a counselor at a Prince George's County high school to camp out along a route a Mandela motorcade might follow.

"If I have to spend the night, I will," said Escobar, who over the years has donated money and time to her church's anti-apartheid efforts. "I plan to bring a sleeping bag, a lawn chair, my favorite pillow, an umbrella, raincoat and my 10-year-old son. It means so much to me to get a glimpse of the man."

Longtime devotees and new admirers hold Mandela in awe for a variety of reasons. He is manna for people who said they are hungering for a hero. For some, his stately manner, serenity and proven steadfastness have set a new and refreshing standard for leadership. Others say he evokes energy and excitement reminiscent of the headiest days of the civil rights movement.

Yesterday, more than 1,000 people lined 15th Street NW across from the Madison Hotel, Mandela's address while he is here. Some had positioned themselves as early as 11 a.m. to get a glimpse of Mandela, who arrived at 4:20 p.m. The mood was festive with children playing, young men hawking T-shirts, buttons, African medallions and political pamphlets.

Donald Coble, 32, of the District, packed a lunch and a bottle of juice and took a position under a tree about noon yesterday. He said he has been reading about Mandela since his parents encouraged him to when he was 8 years old.

"I'll stay here until he comes. I would just love to get a glance at him, not just seeing him in a newspaper or magazine," said Coble, who works as a personal physical trainer and owns a shoeshine parlor at the Washington Convention Center. "This is a man who has been in prison for 20-some years . . . . I'd love to hear him speak because everything he talks about is true."

All this and more to see a man who has become a living symbol for the struggle to end apartheid.

"This is someone who exhibits the strength and inner peace of a man who has seen the backside of a storm . . . that few could survive," said Larry Hicks, of Northwest Washington, who said he intends to stake out a motorcade route and try to get a view of Mandela.

"He is like nothing or no one I have ever seen and that gives me hope not only for the oppressed in South Africa but for the people who are striving for change on our shores," Hicks said.

An employee with the D.C. Department of Public Works, Hicks said he counts Mandela among his heroes although Hicks has not been active in the anti-apartheid movement. "I guess I have been more concerned with inequalities in the United States," Hicks said. "But I look to the man for inspiration and hope and try to use the example of his life and the commitment to his struggle as a blueprint for my own life."

Mandela's visit has become an occasion for hastily arranged family reunions. Doris Taylor, a retired secretary, sent airline tickets to her two grown children so they could fly home to Temple Hills for the occasion. In other cases, kinsmen coming here to see Mandela are relying on familial hospitality. Rhett Lewis, 36, director of training for the National Urban Coalition, will host his father from Lancaster, S.C., a brother from Virginia Beach and another brother from Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Lewis said the South African's allure for people here is magnified because the leaders they see against a backdrop of a rising homicide rate and the devastation of crack are diminished in comparison.

"In a period of time when so many public figures are being discredited, destroyed . . . this stalwart African man still rises like a giant, stands tall and has maintained a consistent integrity," Lewis said. "Unlike so many who become dubbed heroes, here is a true hero who has not tried to take advantage of that to use it for his own self-aggrandizement."

The adoration and reverence for Mandela that came across in scores of interviews in the week before his arrival sometimes was admittedly extreme, even mythical.

Ernest Withers says Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years, has endured so much that he deserves a place among 20th century luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi and Lech Walesa.

"It is the stuff that books of the Bible were written around," said Withers, a member of the parish council of St. Augustine's Catholic Church and chairman of the church committee on Africa and the Diaspora. "He made the ultimate sacrifice short of death."

The adulation of Mandela here reflects the same emotional responses he evokes in his own country. Many South African blacks call him "our father" and regard him as a political savior from the oppression of apartheid and white rule. Since his release from prison, he has done most to establish the African National Congress as the dominant black party in South Africa, drawing the biggest rallies ever seen in the country.

At the same time, some South African blacks, particularly young ones, have voiced impatience with Mandela's efforts to negotiate the white government and argue that only a more militant approach can bring black rule to their country.

Mandela, and the struggle that he represents, seems to elicit an almost reverential response, particularly for black Americans who see a direct correlation to his cause in their lives.

Sean Carter drew a lesson of commitment from what he knows of Mandela's selflessness and revolutionary discipline. "If he could spend 27 of his years in prison, then I could spend a few hours of my time to help the struggle here," said Carter, 22, president of the black student union at Montgomery College.

"He {Mandela} decided that he would rather stay right there in jail rather than renounce what they called terrorist actions," said Carter. "That is one of the things that appealed to me most. He was uncompromising in his struggle to attain his people's freedom."

But not everyone is in awe of Mandela. His stature may have diminished among people who are repulsed by Mandela's refusal to disavow Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, Washington area director of the American Jewish Committee and president of the Washington Board of Rabbis, said Mandela's allegiance to Arafat and Gadhafi during the televised town meeting Thursday night "jarred an otherwise positive impression that I had of him."

For years the public embraced a younger, more militant image of Mandela, kept alive by the lore of the anti-apartheid struggle and through outdated photos of a full-jowled and robust young man.

No one knew quite what to expect on that February morning Mandela emerged from prison emboldened but not perceptibly embittered by the experience. The older, slimmer version of Mandela surpassed the images that many conjured in his absence.

"I remember I was standing in a bar, having brunch, the morning he was released," said Saul Schniderman, a Library of Congress employee and union shop steward. "Everybody gathered around the television. I said, 'Oh my God, he's so old.' We weren't allowed to see him. The only picture I had seen of him was when he was young."

Schniderman said he has placed a anti-apartheid sticker on his car bumper and over the years has sent for leaflets to urge others to boycott companies that do business in South Africa. It was when he read Winnie Mandela's book, "Part of My Soul Went With Him," that he gained a deeper respect and understanding of Mandela and his cause.

"Here was a man who spent the greater part of his life in jail for something he believed in," Schniderman said. "I think Nelson Mandela represents that statement which is keeping hope alive and staying in there for the long haul."

Gray-haired, gentle and sage at 71, Mandela's age appears to add to his appeal. "I think he plays like the grandfather everybody wants," said Cecelie Counts Blakey, of the National Mandela Welcoming Committee. "He smiles like a grandfather. He is gentle like a grandfather. Let's face it: Everybody needs a grandfather."