Census Director Kenneth Prewitt brought his "Be Counted" campaign to Alaska--the state with the worst participation rate in the 1990 Census--and urged anti-government homesteaders, fearful immigrants, disaffected natives and everyone else to fill out their census forms this time around.

In 1990, only 52 percent of Alaskans bothered to send back their forms, the worst mail-in rate in the country, which had an overall response rate of 65 percent. Prewitt attributed the low response in Alaska to a combination of factors, including the state's appeal to Americans who do not want the government in their lives.

Alaska also has a growing population of natives, many of whom are moving to cities and have no ties to established organizations, Prewitt said. There also is a growing population of immigrants--from Koreans to Macedonians--who do not necessarily know much about the census and may fear that the information they provide will not be confidential.

The census, a $6.8 billion effort, is the country's largest peacetime mobilization, and the data collected is key to allocating $185 billion a year in federal funds. Census figures also are used to reapportion Congress and to redistrict governmental bodies from state legislatures to town councils.

Most people will receive census forms in the mail in March, but the census begins early in Alaska because of the need to reach people in remote areas, where the extreme cold means they gather in villages. Prewitt himself will begin the 2000 Census count on Thursday, accompanied by a team of enumerators, in remote Unalakleet, an Eskimo village of about 800 on the Bering Sea 400 miles northwest of Anchorage.

Today, Prewitt directed his hard-sell for the census to about 60 civic leaders, business people and representatives of ethnic groups gathered at a breakfast inside a converted movie theater. One person asked why the census no longer asked whether homes have indoor plumbing, a sign of how complex the endeavor can become.

The lack of plumbing in many villages remains a major issue in Alaska, and there is concern that not documenting the extent of the problem will mean it will persist. Prewitt expressed sympathy for that view but said the effort to make the census more user-friendly meant reducing the number of questions.

Prewitt was optimistic that the census could do better this time than in 1990, when for the first time there was a larger undercount than in the preceding census. Nationally, people who are minorities, immigrants and children are disproportionately likely to be missed by the census. The same is true in Alaska.

But the real problem here is not in the remote villages but in cities and rural areas. In Anchorage, barely half the residents returned their forms in 1990. Said Prewitt: "I really hope the message gets back to Anchorage."

Nationally, the census needs to hire a half million people--in the tightest labor market in three decades--to help with the count. Prewitt said he was confident the census would meet its ambitious hiring goals here. Other census officials said 167 team leaders had been hired from villages across the state; they will go back to their communities and hire two or three more people to help them with the count.