Washington — Dazed students sprawl about the classroom like so many felled trees. Around them is the debris left by intense learning - crumpled paper, empty soda cans, full notebooks. It is Friday afternoon, and the class is struggling with an intellectual puzzle of rare challenge.
Namely, if you're a campaign manager, how do you handle your candidate on election day?
''Find something for them to do. Otherwise, they will drive you crazy,'' says lecturer Fred Asbell, a Republican Party strategist. ''Send them to the movies. Let them hold a sign. Anything.''
Welcome to Campaign College '84, the Harvard of applied politics. Here in a Washington, D.C., hotel, GOP operatives from all across the United States have gathered for a week of intensive training, courtesy of the Republican National Committee.
At this school, students learn the fine points of phone banks, fund-raising, election tactics, and how to answer that crucial question: ''What should we do first? Fold the letters, or address the envelopes?''
''Just be decisive,'' says Joe Gaylord, director of the Republican Congressional Committee. ''Say, 'You fold first, everyone knows that.' ''
The science (or art, depending on your point of view) of political campaigning is not new. Though George Washington's presidential races were about as competitive as a nap, by 1828 Andrew Jackson had a well-organized campaign, with numerous committees and carefully planned fund raising.
Grover Cleveland commanded a well-oiled machine. William McKinley pioneered the single-issue strategy, rising to prominence by talking about tariffs.
But political campaigning today - from the White House to the statehouse - is becoming more and more complex. To help novices deal with PACs, political consultants, and direct mail, both parties are using a technique that sounds old-fashioned: campaign schools.
The Democrats have a training roadshow they took around the country last year. This summer, they'll repeat the workshop for interested delegates at their San Francisco convention.
''It's just like a school, only there's no study hall,'' says Yolanda Caraway , Democratic National Committee director of education.
The Republican Party, however, has a lot more money than the Democrats - and it's their school, say experts, that's the most advanced of the genre. Called Campaign Management College '84, it includes massive notebooks of poll data and a computer game that simulates running for office.
''The GOP is just so much better organized than the Democrats,'' says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.
After a week of 11-hour days, plus homework, the students at this particular session of Campaign College complain of being somewhat woozy. Dressed for the most part in jeans and T-shirts, they could easily pass for a class from a local community college. In fact, they are the lieutenants of GOP politics, ranging from the campaign manager of a Vermont state senate candidate, to several Reagan/Bush reelection officials.
So far, they have lived through lectures on demographics and voter research. They have been taught various types of campaign strategy: ''Create a clear difference between you and the opponent; become the champion of a single issue or cause; create a positive image;'' etc.
They have heard experts give tips on scheduling (''Bowling alleys are good places to campaign'') and what to look for in a direct-mail consultant.
They have done homework exercises in press relations. They have heard about federal election law, and how to raise money from political action committees (PACs). (''Prepare a solicitation package. Mail it to PACs you have identified as your prime targets.'')
If there is a theme to the classes they have lived through, it seems to be that, in politics, danger lurks on every side. In fact, war stories of how things go wrong are a favored way for veterans to pass along their political knowledge. A recent Missouri governor, for instance, joked at a press conference that he had got his signature wrong while signing a bill; reporters laughed, and next day plastered the story ''GOVERNOR MISSPELLS NAME'' all over the state.
John Anderson staffers, in a famous miscue, decided during the 1980 presidential campaign to charge $3 admission to a Philadelphia rally. The auditorium could seat 2,500 people; only 600 showed up, and there were lots of news photos of empty seats.
''Campaigns, by their nature, are not what you would call smooth,'' says Joe Gaylord of the RNC.
But in even one day at Campaign College, the alert student can pick up many practical tips that could make a campaign go somewhat easier. Among them:
* Never make a major decision within 24 hours of a debate. You'll probably just do something you will regret later.
* Never have more than 10 people in your candidate's ''kitchen cabinet.'' George McGovern had 20, and look what happened to him.
* Never give out the numbers of your phone bank. Your opponent will simply call and jam them.
* Keep calling people to plug your candidate right through the dinner hour; it's hard enough to find people at home. If someone gets annoyed, speak in a nice tone of voice and then hang up.
* Make sure your flyers don't look like junk mail, or they won't be read. Make them look like invitations, or bills, or pieces of paper torn out of a notebook.
* Turning out your supporters on election day is crucial, and can be difficult. Show up at their door offering rides and babysitters. ''Cry, anything. Fall down on the ground to get them to go,'' says Fred Asbell, head of strategy for the RNC.
Most of Campaign College's students work for challengers, not incumbents. Many are political neophytes. One couple, Joe and Sonya Burns, co-manage the congressional campaign of Clarence Taylor, a South Carolina Republican running against an entrenched Democratic incumbent. Mr. Taylor entered the race only hours before the filing deadline, and is just now building a campaign organization.
''Everything we've learned here is valuable,'' says Joe Burns, ''the particulars of fund raising, how to set up phone banks. The mechanics.''
A few students are experienced politicos in for a refresher course. Jeff Corcoran, manager of an Ohio congressional race, has worked on a number of campaigns, including Reagan's in 1980. Still, he says, Campaign College is teaching him new tricks. ''Most campaigns don't understand what it takes to win, '' he says.
And running a winning campaign is sure to get harder in the years ahead, as computers and consultants push forward the science of vote-getting. Charles Robb , for instance, in winning the Virginia governorship, gained crucial black votes with a state-of-the-art phone effort that involved local clerics (''Reverend Smith would like us to call you . . .'') and a Texas computer to spit out personalized follow-up letters.
Campaigning is becoming a course of study at real colleges, in fact, as well as partisan seminars. At least two universities - Kent State and San Francisco State - now offer advanced degress in campaign management.
Political operatives ''need a better understanding of how money can be used, '' says Dr. Murray Fishel, director of the Kent State program.