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Delegates live for the nitty-gritty of politics

It is a little-known fact that Roy Pechous, a suburban Chicago attorney, is running in tomorrow's Illinois presidential primary. So is Betty J. Hoxsey, a former Illinois state representative; so is Bradford Keith VanHecke, a computer-equipment businessman in Quincy, Ill.

These people are not presidential hopefuls. They're running for one of the most peculiar political posts in the Western world: delegate to an American political convention.

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Political conventions in the United States are one part business, two parts celebration. They draw guests from all over the country and, for a few days every four years, they reflect the diversity and the dynamism of the American electorate.

``I call it the shortest-term political office - and the most poorly paid,'' says Ron Freund, an antinuclear activist and delegate candidate for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. ``You pay your own way.''

For some, like Mr. Pechous of suburban Berwyn, this election is the first chance to play a direct role in the presidential process.

``I like the drama and excitement of a national political convention,'' Pechous says, during a rally he organized for Republican candidate Robert Dole.

Other delegates attend over and over, because they feel it is important to be involved.

``I'm the type of person that if I really believe in the candidate, I'm ready to stand up and be counted,'' says Ms. Hoxsey, who was a Ronald Reagan delegate in 1980. This year, she's running as an alternate delegate for Vice-President George Bush.

Unlike many states, Illinois lists the delegate candidates by name on the ballot along with their presidential preference.

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At the same time, the Illinois primary is also more open because anyone can run for a delegate slot if he or she files the required number of signatures on petitions. Delegate candidates need not even specify support for one of the presidential candidates.

Twelve years ago, Mr. Freund ran as an uncommitted delegate supporting the nuclear freeze. He lost. This year, he's going the more traditional route, signing up with Dukakis. On the ballot, his name will appear with the governor's name next to it.

The competition for a convention seat is tremendous. On the Democratic side, for example, more than 1,300 Illinois citizens are running for just 113 delegate seats. With pledged, at-large, and Democratic National Committee seats, the Illinois delegation will have 187 votes at the convention. Illinois Republicans will have 92 votes at their convention.

Campaign strategy plays an important role in slating delegates.

``You look for electability,'' says Larry Suffredin, Illinois delegate coordinator for Richard Gephardt. A campaign tries to get elected officials or other high-profile citizens who can rally their neighbors to support the candidate.

The delegate slate also has to be diversified - partly because of party rules, partly because it is politically smart in an ethnically and racially mixed state such as Illinois, says Chris Long, Illinois political director for the Dukakis campaign. For example, the campaign has slated nine Hispanics to run for directly elected seats, which conforms with Democratic rules. But Dukakis has also gone out of its way to recruit 10 Italian-Americans and 16 Irish-Americans, Ms. Long says.

At a press conference scheduled for today in Springfield, Ill., Jesse Jackson hopes to underline his broad base by showcasing a number of his nonblack, nonurban supporters.

The slating of delegates is not only a campaign affair. Labor unions have made an extensive effort this year to get their members slated in order to have a credible voice at the convention. Other groups are doing it too.

``There's a lot of value in raising the credibility of the organization and also to show that we are an organization that can produce,'' says Mike Kelly, director of Illinois Freeze Voters, the political arm of the state's antinuclear arms movement. The group hopes to gain the candidates' ears by demonstrating its success in attracting votes. This hands-on politics is often grubby.

There are endless meetings, rallies, and leaflet sessions to attend or organize. Marrice Coverson, a vocation-education director and Dukakis delegate, spent yesterday at a St. Patrick's Day parade and political dinner. Pechous, the Dole delegate, spent part of his weekend handing out seed packets - forget-me-nots - to bolster his candidate's struggling campaign.

Soon after he signed on with the Dukakis campaign last summer, Chicago attorney Bill O'Connor took on the job of finding a suitable campaign headquarters. Then, he helped the staff scrub, plaster, and paint it.

If delegates experience the highs of political victory, they also feel the lows of defeat.

``It's all over but the shouting,'' says Mr. VanHecke, the Gephardt delegate, about his candidate's chances. ``But it's not so bad. I've learned a lot.''

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