There are two sure ways to find out how many friends you really have.

One is to win the lottery. The other is to be selected as a presidential debate panelist.NBC White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell received her debate invitation Tuesday, said yes, and then came a duffelbag full of question suggestions from all her friends and friends she didn't know she had. They kept coming at her until Thursday night, when Mitchell and three other reporters sat down in front of George Bush and Michael Dukakis.

And once the debate started, the two behind the podium had the easy part.

Mitchell was operating on four hours sleep, really needed to blow her nose with no Kleenex in sight, and, to cap it off, nobody was answering those wonderful queries she had so slaved over.

"This was the toughest thing I've ever been through," she said afterward. "The candidates had all week to prepare for this. I had 24 hours."

For Mitchell, the chance to sit on stage for the last presidential debate was a career opportunity. Yet in accepting, Mitchell also plunged herself into the journalist's equivalent of the lawyer's bar exam: having to prove yourself in the space of six questions.

"These candidates have been asked and have deflected so many questions these past many months," she said. "It is a challenge to be original. . . . You have to try to think of the questions that will not elicit the stock answers."

Afterward, Tom Brokaw, her anchorman, hugged her saying, "You were just great." ABC's David Brinkley, in his televised debate analysis, praised the panel for asking thoughtful questions. And a Los Angeles policeman came up and asked her for her autograph.

Still, Mitchell wasn't completely satisfied.

Going in to the debate, she thought she had built a better mousetrap. Coming out, she admitted both mice got out alive.

"They didn't answer anything," she said of Bush and Dukakis. "I had this terrible letdown because they didn't get off their program answers."

She said she was nervous when the cameras started rolling. Not only was she representing all of the other hundreds of reporters on the campaign trail, but she was also sitting as a surrogate for millions of voters.

"If you screw up, you've screwed up in front of 70 million people," Mitchell said, "and you've missed a great opportunity to help the voters understand the men they are voting for."

If Mitchell didn't put enough pressure on herself, an NBC colleague helped, telling her, "Don't worry about a thing, kid. The entire election is hanging in the balance."

Mitchell didn't back down, adding a rare moment of confrontation during the debate when she posed a hypothetical question about the deficit to Dukakis.

Dukakis: May I disagree with the premise of your question?

Mitchell: For the sake of argument, no.