Perhaps the former wife of Sen. Eugene McCarthy has been exposed to too many Reform Dem parlor parlays, because the talk in her first novel far out-distances the action and, for that matter, the characters; but it's good talk for the most part, the sort of political throwaways you rarely catch on the stump. Re the Brown-Nader-Hayden phenomena: ""Not the return of Camelot. . . it's the romance of Sherwood Forest."" Or concerning presidential fever and its hazards: ""Once they get out in front there's no going back. If they're stopped they die."" The story is mainly concerned with the rise and fall of presidential candidate Sam Nordahl, who is grooming for the primaries in 1976--a candidacy inadvertently hunched by TV news personality Jeff. McCarthy views the campaign through the women: Alice Ann Nordahl, who overcomes a buried grief of her youth and her insecurities to ready herself for the partnership ahead; Jeff's young wife Sarah, who attempts her own career; and warhorse journalist Tiana--the link between the old Washington and the new. The characters are just interchangeable vehicles for some tantalizing observations, but McCarthy shows a keen appreciation of the glides of maneuvering pols and the subtle loyalties of Washington's back fence establishment of women. And the views from the trail--the hot plates and paper cups, those Holiday Inns--bristle with verisimilitude.