San Francisco — The delegate had barely sat down when a television cameraman swooped down on her for a closeup of her hat. It featured a variety of campaign memorabilia, including a stuffed donkey.
That tells something about the sometimes zany Democratic get-together now under way at Moscone Center. It's supposed to be a convention for party delegates. It's not. It's for the news media. Or so it seems.
Some 13,000 reporters, editors, and technicians are accredited to the convention. There are only 5,300 delegates and alternates. That means almost three newspeople per delegate - the highest ratio in convention history.
They are all here to record a quadrennial political spectacle that has vastly changed over the decades. Gone are those proverbial smoke-filled rooms and the boisterous fights on the convention floor. Instead, there is a more-orderly convention in which the nominations, the platform, the rules and credentials reports, have been largely worked out in advance - all calculated to provide a showcase for the party on nationwide television.
Events are timed for best impact on a prime-time audience, especially in the Midwest and on the East Coast. The party tries to show its strengths and keep its frictions and weaknesses out of the national limelight. TV sets the agenda.
Massive network anchor booths dominate the hall. Behind their big glass windows Dan Rather and others can be seen interviewing prominent figures. With their reporters roving the convention hall, the anchormen know more what is going on than the delegates.
Sometimes the delegates even interact with those in the TV booths. When John B. Connally, a Democrat-turned-Republican, was spotted in a network booth, this touched off a chant from the Texas delegation located nearby: ''Kick John out! Kick John out!''
But the delegates are here mainly to whoop and cheer and to try to find that magic feeling of unity that can carry their party to victory in November. They sport buttons reading ''Woman V-P Now,'' or ''Jane Wyman Was Right'' or ''Talks Not Troops.'' They wear sombreros and baseball hats. They wave Mondale or Hart or Jackson placards.
And they present a colorful mosaic of America. Whites and blacks, Hispanics and Jews, men and women, young and old.
Preplanned or not, the convention for them has a serious purpose.
''We come to make it all official,'' says Mildred A. Kyles of Detroit. ''Why go to church? You do it to build strength by getting together.''
''Every person has a responsibility to be here to make sure that what they believe in will happen,'' comments Marie Peterson, a Mondale delegate from Monument, Kan.
Says Steven Koslovsky, a Mondale supporter from St. Louis: ''The numbers are clear for the nominees. But it's important for Democrats across the country to come together every four years and confirm their values.''
They do it with a good deal of noise. Few delegates seem to listen as speeches are given and convention business conducted. They are talking, mingling , laughing, occasionally shouting or booing. The convention floor throbs with the hubbub of voices.
Yet the gathering is curiously subdued in 1984. The speeches, the orchestral band, the films on past presidents - all still seem overshadowed by the party divisions caused during the primary campaign. The bobbing placards of the determinedly exuberant Hart delegates create a sea of red across the oblong hall.
The first outburst of emotion erupted when US Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, cochair of the Hart campaign, took the podium, setting off a crescendo of approving shouts. It made many wonder what will happen when the senator from Colorado addresses the convention today.
Then there was Mario M. Cuomo, governor of New York, who on the first evening of the convention injected genuine passion in the hall with a forceful keynote address attacking Ronald Reagan's policies.
The phrases rang out with conviction: ''We must be the family of America.'' ''We believe in only the government we need but we insist on all the government we need.'' ''If July brings back Ann Gorsuch Burford, what can we expect of December?''
On the floor they cheered and stomped their feet and brought the governor back for an ovation.
''Beautiful!'' said one delegate emerging from the hall. ''That's what we needed going into the election.''
''It makes you wish he were the candidate,'' remarked another with a trace of wistfulness.
Amid the hurly-burly and the rhetoric, the gathered Democrats still are reaching out for that intangible unifying recipe. For something to electrify their campaign. Will it be Geraldine Ferraro? Already it is being remarked that she - not Walter Mondale - is the center of attention.
As the party struggles to put itself together for presidential nomination night, the press wrestles with its own frustrations. One is that it can't see as well as it should.
The Moscone Convention Center stretches across a full city block. Inside the hall, long and narrow, are massive concrete arches rising from the floor to support the flat roof. These block views of the floor. ''It's the worst hall I've ever been in,'' commented a veteran newsman.
Even many delegates cannot see the red, white, and blue podium. And that adds to the crush of people in the aisles.
But that, after all, is where the action is.