MASON CITY, IOWA — IN a rare moment of vulnerability, Sen. Phil Gramm lifts his head from a page his aides have given him to study hurriedly between campaign stops, and turns a question back on a few reporters.
''You guys have been traveling with me for a year now,'' he says above the din of a turboprop plane. ''Do you really think that I'm arrogant?''
It is the kind of moment photographers hope for, when the private individual pokes through the hard shell of the politician. Such moments offer the American political system its most profound confirmation: that these men who would be president are no different from the common people to whom they must apply for the job.
The nine Republicans jousting for the right to try to unseat Bill Clinton in November have traveled a long, lonely road through America. Now that the primaries have begun, the journey will end soon for some. A few others will hang on a while longer. Only one will reach the end - the nomination. And there lies the general election, another beginning.
Gramm's campaign is in trouble, beset by a public perception that he is too ambitious to be trustworthy or that his social reforms are mean-spirited, or both. He knows it, and it frustrates him. That's not how he sees himself.
But presidential campaigns aren't kind to the people who endure them. They are an endless cadence of speeches and fund-raisers, hand shakes and ''photo ops.'' Every word is carefully scripted by speech writers, every movement planned by handlers, every action analyzed by the press. An image is built, and it becomes easy, as Gary Hart always feared, for the man to be lost within that creation called the candidate.
Consider Bob Dole. The image-molders put him on the steps of a Dartmouth College fraternity house in Hanover, N.H., last month. So the senator talked about the time he rode a motorcycle up to the third floor of his frat house at the University of Kansas before World War II. It was actually working well: the Bobster connecting with young people.
Then it happened. No great disaster, but how could it not look ridiculous? As Dole moved through the crowd to board a modern-day version of Ken Kesey's psychedelic school bus for an interview with MTV, the sound system throbbed ''Get Your Booty on the Bus.'' Dole probably never even knew he had a ''booty.''
Once an image takes hold, it slips from the grasp of campaign handlers and feeds on mass perception: Dole the ''hatchet man,'' or Steve Forbes ''the silver spoon.'' The image becomes a lens for viewing everything the candidate does.
Mr. Forbes stops off at McDonald's along the way to an event in Indianola, Iowa, a few nights ago. After a quick stop at the counter, he shares a game of ''Eensy Weensy Spider'' and a box of Hamburglar cookies with a three-year-old girl.
The press loves it: the zillionaire mixing with the underclass, eating the commoner's food. But the magazine publisher is just being himself. He's found a private moment right there in front of everyone. Forbes loves fast food - his wife can't keep him away from it, his friends say - and he has five daughters. That little girl gave the candidate a chance to be himself again, if only for a moment.
It is late at night when Lamar Alexander arrives at the Marriott in Des Moines. He has just finished one more leg of a long quest for the nomination. His eyes are heavy, his face puffed and deeply wrinkled. He can hardly stand up anymore.
A reporter asks for a few minutes. Not too much, just a couple of questions. The sacrifice of more than two years on the campaign trail spills out in one sentence.''I just want to go upstairs and see my kid,'' the former governor of Tennessee says.
Then he talks anyway.
Of course, each candidate has a different limit. Pat Buchanan, for example, was scheduled to meet with a reporter at the same Marriott lobby. An hour past the appointed time, his press secretary called down apologizing. Mr. Buchanan, it seems, opted to take an afternoon nap.