IN a drab office building on the edge of downtown Los Angeles a quiet revolution in political campaigning is emerging. A cadre of 50 young people in jeans, T-shirts, and an occasional punk hairdo mans the phones of Jerry Brown's famous 800 line - the Home Shopping Network of campaign '92.
Once derided, the toll-free number has cemented itself in the folklore of the campaign as a potent way to raise money, build a grass-roots network, and draw people into the political process.
No matter what happens to the former California governor in the primaries ahead, the 800 line is likely to become as familiar in the future as the lawn sign.
Even Mr. Brown's rival for the Democratic nomination, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, has acknowledged that the technology can "empower ordinary people" and has been a "major contribution he [Brown] has made to this campaign."
"Nobody will ever run again without an 800 number," says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California (San Diego). "I just think that in a day when it's incredibly hard to staff campaigns, to raise money for media, and when there are no strong parties, it gives a chance for the Tsongases [candidates with small bankrolls] to have money overnight."
Others are already installing lines. Supporters of the possible independent candidacy of H. Ross Perot have received a Texas-sized 1.7 million calls on their 800 line in Dallas. They are not accepting donations but are using the call-in operation to organize the Texas billionaire's grass-roots drive to get his name on the ballot and disseminate information.
The California Democratic Party is considering an 800 number to raise money, and a United States Senate hopeful in Oregon has hired the firm that is handling Jerry Brown's call-in effort.
Toll-free lines are hardly a novel idea in politics. Many remember Michael Dukakis's phone-home effort (1-800-USA-MIKE) in 1988. It was eventually dropped, in part because opponents, presumably Republicans, jammed the lines and rang up the Democrat's phone bill.
Still, says Susan Estrich, Mr. Dukakis's campaign manager, "it was helpful as an organizing and fund-raising tool and as a central way to connect the campaign."
The Democratic National Committee once tried the idea and found its lines flooded more with pranksters than with contributors. The threat of such shenanigans discouraged Republican presidential aspirant Patrick Buchanan from using one this year.
Toll-free operations are not cheap. Besides the extensive telephone charges, there are computers, massive mailings, and administrative and labor costs involved.
Since September, Brown's 800 line has received pledges of $5.6 million from 250,000 callers. About $2.7 million worth of checks have actually come in. The money is supplemented by federal matching funds - the main source of Brown's campaign treasury.
The operation functions out of a forlorn-looking building near downtown, where workers staff telephones 24 hours a day.
THE operators take down names and addresses and the amounts of pledges, which can be no more than $100, in line with Brown's jeremiad against the big money and special interests that he says have corrupted politics. Any amount over the limit is refunded.
Pledge forms are printed out and sent to the people indicating the amount they agreed to contribute, or volunteer tasks they have decided to take on (precinct captain, displaying yard signs). If a check doesn't arrive within 21 days, another mailer is sent out.
"In my estimation it has been extremely profitable for the campaign," says Jan Krajewski, a longtime friend of Brown whose firm, Compucall, is handling the operation. Mr. Krajewski isn't sure how much the operation costs, though financial reports have suggested that about 1 in 3 dollars goes for running the effort. The 150 operators who work in three shifts are employees of Compucall, not Brown volunteers. They make $8 to $10 an hour and all the pizza and sandwiches they can consume at night. Contributio ns have come in from all 50 states, though California has accounted for the most ($900,000).
Third-grader Julia Marsh of St. Louis, saved up her allowance for 10 weeks and mailed in $50, along with these reassuring words: "Clinton is hard to spell. Brown is easier to spell. It will be easier for 'Brown' to win, harder for 'Clinton.' "
Krajewski says that, early in the operation, about 15 percent of the calls were pranks. But there have been far fewer lately. Operators are told to hang up within six seconds if no one is on the other end, since no charge is then incurred. Clearly, one reason Brown's 800 line has endured is his P. T. Barnum way of publicizing it. He recites it as often as he can during an interview or debate, with the mischievous glee of a fraternity brother who has just pulled off a prank.
Herbert Alexander, a campaign-finance expert at the University of Southern California, says he believes 800 lines prove most effective for left- or right-wing candidates, those with a corps of ardent supporters who will call in and contribute. While an 800 line alone may not be enough to bankroll a presidential campaign, Larry Sabato, a Virginia political scientist, believes it is a good supplement to other types of fund-raising.
More important than the dollars the 800 line brings in may be the names it provides. For Brown, that already means an army of 250,000 people, the seeds of a possible future mass political movement, while the numbers for Mr. Perot appear even more staggering. His line has received as many as 90,000 calls an hour.