The hottest issue for the conservatives in this country is the Panama Canal. The big question is who owns the American political rights to the canal?

There are some people who feel the canal belongs to Ronald Reagan. One of his people told me. "Ronnie discovered the Panama Canal before anybody else. No one even knew it was there until he raised the issue in his try for the presidency. It's Ronnie's canal and we're not going to let anyone take it away from him."

Friends of Sen. Jesse Helms insist the canal belongs to him. A supporter said, "A senator should have precedent over a defeated Republican candidate for the presidency. Jesse is willing to go to war before he will allow the United States to sign a treaty with Panama. It's a personal thing with Jesse and has nothing do with politics. He loves that canal. When he was a kid he used to sail toy boats on it. SOme of his best friends live in the Canal Zone. The thought of anyone but Americans running that canal makes him sick. Ronald Reagan doesn't have the motional investiment in it that Jesse does, and we're serving notice that if anyone tries to take this issue away from Helms they're going to have to fight for it."

Sen. Strom Thurmond's man ridiculed the idea that the Panama Canal belonged to Ronald Reagan or Jesse Helms. "Strom's been worried about the panama Canal from the moment he came into the Senate. He's been expecting something like this to happen ever since he fought with Teddy Roosevlt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American war."

"That long ago?" I said.

"Longer than that. The Panama Canal is Strom's baby, and Reagan and Helms better keep their cotton-pickin' hand off it."

A newcomer who has suddenly laid claim to the Panama Canal issue is Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas. DOle sees it as a chance for a shot at the Republican nomination for president in 1981. He even went so far as to release a State Department classified cable to stake his rights to the canal.

"Bob," said a fried "was heart-broken when former President Ford came out for the treaty. It hurt him deeply and had he known at the time where Ford stood, he would never have accepted the vice presidential nomination in 1976."

"Do you think he'll speak to Ford any more?"

"Would you speak to someone who wants to give up an American-built canal?"

There are, of course, others who are maintaining that the Panama Canal belongs to the. Former Secretary of Treasury Bill Simon, who also has presidential ambiitons, has been organizing the financial fight to defeat the treaty, but so far he can't get any television time.

Joh Connally wants a piece of the canal issue just in case he decides to run, but as his man told me, "John's not greedy. He's willing to share it with the Daughters of the American Revolution."

One of the big surprises is that William Buckley, the conservative's writer-in-residence has endorsed President Carter's treaty in four columns.

This has angered his brother, former Sen. James Buckley, who is thinking of disowning William for such treachery. In a letter to The Washington Star, Jim Buckley's legislative assistant angrily wrote that Bill was speaking for himself and not for his brother in the column.

Those of us who know both men are praying that they can work out some kind of compromise. It would be a pity after all these years if the Panama Canal turned brother against brother.

In spite of the people I talked to, the Panama Canal issue is still up for grans. Unless Ronald Reagan can produce a deed proving he owns it, we may see a bloody fight amongst the conservatives laying claim to it. And if this takes place the Panama Canal is sure to go down the drain.