IN THE QUEEN City Club in downtown Cincinnati, the dark-suited men swiftly spoon up their chocolate sundaes, highly caloried, highly salaried archetypes of what remains of the Republican Party in the years after Nixon. They are waiting for the man who will make everything all right again.

And Howard Baker does not disappoint. He comes on right after the sundaes, and the businessmen accord him the polite, attentive reception warranted by a former star of daytime television. His is a genteel courtship: a dash of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of economic talk containing those reassuring words, "the viability of the free enterprise system," a sprinkle of social consciousness - a sprinkle that will become a stream the next morning when The Speech will undergo yet another incarnation before the exception faces of pink of shining young Republicans.

Baker is very, very good at what he does. He is very good at biding his time. He is superb at not running for president.

Several senators see Baker as a cunning soul. He is, as yet, one of them - only more so: a minority leader obviously desirous of being more than they are, of being, for instance, president of the United States next time around.

Baker doesn't say he is running for president. That would be unseemly. Baker also doesn't say he will not run for president. That would be just plain dumb. And laughable, as the senators well know. Howard Baker says, "Howard Baker is not running for president. Howard Baker may run for president. There is a similarity - this sounds terribly disingenuous, I guess - there is a similarity between the role of a minority leader on the one hand and a man who is running for president. But honestly, I am not running for president."

He smiles so broadly, so unconvincingly, that you can't help feeling he means to unconvince. "Now I suppose I could stop the speculation about it by saying, 'I ain't gonna run.' But I'm not going to do that."

So this is a story about a peripatetic politician who is not running for president in just about every state you can think of these days: in Ohio, in Louisiana, in Tennessee, where he was born and raised a Republican - and where he must get reelected to the Senate this year. Baker visits all these states and more, delivering his moderate Republican party-unification speech in every sober, wood-paneled club that will have him.

Howard Baker is not running for president, in other words, in much the same way Jimmy Carter was not running for president four years ago. The comparison is not far-fetched. "An enigmatic and devious character," is how one senator describes his colleague. Like all senators quoted here, this one will go unnamed, since it does no one's career a power of good to be on the fighting side of Howard Baker.

"Baker," continues the senator, "is a pretty good example of a guy who isn't tying himself to any one issue. He's a kind of journeyman of issues."

Howard Baker reminds this senator of a basketball player. The kind who gets out on the court looking all wimpy and dressed like a zhlub. "And then scores 25 points in the game," concludes the senator.

"I listen to him with great interest, but follow him with great caution," says another senator. "He is slick and, I think, cold. People aren't passionately for him or against him. He doesn't arouse political passions, and that it his strength."

Does all this sound familiar? Does the prospect of the lonely southerner from the small town of 374 people, coming to the fore to weave together the tatters of his poor, shredded party, remind you of someone we all know?

Take away the talk about religion, take away 50 percent of the presidential drawl (for the accent, like the senator, is not slow, but deliberate and - also like the senator - has been known to vary in intensity) - and if all goes well for Howard Baker what we may well have in 1980 is the battle of the mirror images, a South divided against itself. And then how will we be able to tell Howard Baker from Jimmy Carter?

Joy Baker shrugs lightly. "That's easy," she says. "One has an accent and the other doesn't."

It cannot, as some senators have suggested, have been easy being the daughter of Everett Dirksen, which is what Joy Baker is in so many ways more than biologically.

It also cannot have been easy being the son-in-law of old Ev Dirksen, as Howard Baker admits. "It caused me some moments of grief.From time to time there'd be stories about Joy Dirksen and her husband, Howard."

He smiles wanly. "Or 'Ev Dirksen's retiring son-in-law . . .' I got sort of resigned to it. Never resented him or any father."

And, finally, it cannot have been easy being Joy Dirksen Baker who, after her father's death in '69, became an alcoholic. "It was bad for me," she says simply. "It almost ruined my life. Really."

From her living room floor where she is curled up, she looks up, a slender, middle-aged woman with a handsome but worn face. She has shed a lot of weight and looks excellent in corduroy jeans. She has also shed her need for alcohol, but following her around in Cincinnati quite literally to three drinking parties in a row (swathed then in black Pauline Trigere, and armored by a succession of glasses of ice water), you suddenly understand how it all could happen.

"Well, if you want to know the truth," says Joy Baker, "what I did, what I used to do, was drink before I went to those things. To get all tuned up to go. Then I sort of agonized, and thought to myself, 'Well, maybe I'll have another.'

"So maybe half-way through the thing, I'd have another drink.

"One day, I thought to myself, 'I think maybe after today I won't drink any more. So I went out into the kitchen and got one of those quart bottles of vodka, and got one of those huge cans of grapefruit juice.

"And so I thought, 'Now, today I am going to drink the whole thing because tomorrow I am going to quit.'

"But then I thought - 'Now, why do I want to do a dumb thing like that? Because today I feel good. And tomorrow I'm not going to.' So I just put it back into the cupboard and that was it."

That, as it happens, was not it. During the Kansas City convention when Howard Baker's name came up as a possible vice president running mate with Ford, so did the story about Joy Baker's drinking. Joy Baker's drinking had by then ceased more than six months before, but, the word is, certain Ford advisers spread the story to ruin Baker's chances.

We all know the end to that little episode. That, as they say, is politics: and politics of late is all wrapped up not only in who you are, but who your wife is.

"After the initial pain and anguish - I remember so vividly when someone came at me with that itty-bitty camera" Baker winces, then says, "But once that was over you know it's behind you."

And he also says, dully and without intonation, "I wasn't disappointed in not getting the nomination. I was disappointed in how it was handled.

"I mean this business of selecting the vice president is a demeaning process and it ought to be changed. Ten people, or five or 20, sitting around on tenterhooks and having TV stakeouts and speculation about the balancing process."

He attempts a smile. "It must be sort of like when they picked a bride for a medieval prince. By God, that must've been pretty tough on the girls and boys both!"

Howard Baker says that never again will he contend for vice president. He says, "I've already ploughed that furrow." And he says it with grim finality.

And he also says, "You know, you asked about 'alcoholism and things like that.' Well, there ain't anything like that. That's tough. That's the meanest disease I know."

Joy Baker is asked how the marriage survived, whether it survived because she was married to a particularly understanding man . . .

"No," she says flatly. "It was just one of those miracles."

So Joy Baker is asked if she really wants the goldfish bowl that encompassed the first part of her life, that displayed the worst part of her life, to widen until it surrounds most of her life - does she really want her husband, in other words, to become president?

"I want it to occur if he wants it to occur," she says. "Because I'm not this great woman's libber. Because I know who pays the bills in my house."

She is, after all, old Ev Dirksen's daughter, and when he campaigned, she used to chauffeur him around, as a young woman. And she says it was fun.

"His engine and caboose." She smiles perfunctorily.

And his baby?

"Yep . . . I grew up that way, and really didn't know anything else. I didn't know how normal people lived."

She laughs shortly. "I didn't know any better. I didn't know any other kind of life."

Howard Baker is holding his press conference in the Queen City Club, his slight stature diminished even further by the huge table in front of him, his familiar round face with its ski-jump nose aflame with light: the white hot lights from the TV cameras, the pale yellow lighting of the club itself, and finally, the light that glows under the gigantic portrait of a somber Civil War general.

Yes, Howard Baker of Tennessee is sitting right underneath the portrait of Ulysses S. Grant.

He does not mind a bit. Fifty-two years ago he was born in Huntsville, Tenn., "which is farther away from Memphis as Washington, D.C.," he explains pointedly. Eastern Tennessee is, in fact, so far away from Memphis that it remained loyal to the Union in the Civil War, that it remained largely Republican thereafter, that it produced a Republican congressman named Howard Baker Sr., who, in turn, produced a Republican senator named Howard Baker who everyone back home in Huntsville calls, "Henry," who has a stepmother, Irene Baker, who succeeded her late husband in Congress. You get the idea.

For impressions of Howard Baker Sr., we will have to go to a longtime southern politician who, because he no longer likes Howard Baker Jr., prefers to remain anonymous:

"Howard Baker Sr.," says the old politician slowly and very deliberately, "was a gentleman. And he was courteous. He was a sturdy mountain lawyer, cooperative, and also extremely conservative and able."

For quite some time. Howard Baker Jr. was also a sturdy mountain lawyer. That, in fact, was what the deluded Joy Baker thought she was marrying - a country lawyer, just like his daddy. Their courtship began in 1951 at a wedding, appropriately enough, where Howard Baker threw the former Miss Dirksen into a rose bush, inappropriately enough, after catching her smoking cigars with his younger sister, a transagression for which he blamed the former Miss Dirksen entirely.

Ten weeks later they were married.

Two years earlier (after serving in the Navy in World War II), Baker had finished law school at the University of Tennessee.

"My father was very thoughtful, you know." He smiles sardonically. "When I got out of law school he went off to Congress. I sort of waited (to get into politics). You know I realize these things now, but I sort of guess I had to wait. There was enough politics in the family already. So I practiced law. "Never had any serious thought about getting into politics.Unconsciously, I decided to wait."

Children of politicians being so very similar to the children of entertainers, it is hard not to smile smugly over the inevitable turn in Howard Baker Jr.'s career. "After my Dad's death is when I decided to get into politics," says Howard Baker. "It was '64 and I ran for senator."

And lost. Grimly, he listened as Barry Goldwater Sr., who was then heading the Republican ticket, blasted away at the TVA. And he knew it was all over for him. For the moment.

"My father," he concludes with another grim, "my father - well you know that old saw - my father gets brighter every year. I liked him and we used to fight a lot."

About what?

"Everything." For the first time he looks uncomfortable.

What specifically?

Howard Baker reconsiders. "Well, actually we really didn't fight. Sons and fathers have the usual quantum conflicts . . ."

There are those who say that in 1966 Howard Baker managed to win by playing Let's Make a Deal with the Tennessee Democrats - specifically with Budford Ellington who wanted to be governor once again. Former senator Albert Gore, in his book, "Let the Glory Out," reports that he was told of a meeting between the two.

"What Baker said," reports another fellow senator, "is, 'We'll throw the Republican votes to you, if you don't support (Democrat) Frank Clement who's running against me for the Senate."

Baker says he "absolutely" never made a deal. In any case, in 1966 he became the first popularly elected Republican senator from Tennessee.

How he managed to stay in that precarious post - well, that demanded a different set of skills. One of the senators calls Baker's skills "playing both ends against the middle." That's one way of describing Baker's tactics.

But Baker, being Baker, prefers, as he so often does, to define himself with an anecdote, of which this is his favorite:

Right after Howard Baker had argued his law suit in Tennessee, he asked his daddy how he'd done. "Son," replied Howard Baker Sr., "Son, always guard against speaking more clearly than you think."

Well, Howard Baker seems to have done his daddy proud lately. He didn't exactly break any records in coming to a decision on the Panama Canal treaty. Baker took his own sweet time.

Cautiously - for such is his nature - the minority leader at first adopted a position in favor of the treaty's passage - but only with modifications. "Loaded with dynamite," is how Baker described the Panama issue. And for him it is. Twenty-two thousand letters overwhelmingly opposing the canal treaty clamor for his attention. But by now Baker has decided to work towards the treaty's passage; with the majority leader, he plans to woo the reluctant with a joint leadership amendment.

But, as we all know, it wasn't the Panama Canal issue that brought Howard Baker to national prominence, to the point when people everywhere would stare at him at airports and restaurants, and whisper among themselves. It was the Richard Nixon issue that did this. Or, more precisely, it was the Senate Watergate hearings of which Baker was a part as vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973.

"I was startled and amazed," Howard Baker says deadpan, eyes widening while his facial muscles recreate that old astonishment. He is talking about all the publicity he and the others received when they were brought to us daily on network TV. And yet - you never can believe that Howard Baker doesn't anticipate the effects of what Howard Baker does.

"I did not know. I swear to you, I did not know. Ron (MacMahan - his press secretary) kept telling me the audience size. What was it? Seventy million at one point?"

He looks to his press secretary, who is sitting in on this interview. MacMahan nods his confirmation.

"Yes," continues Baker, "but whether I was so caught up in the momentum of the occasion, or I just was too dumb to realize, I don't know.

"And," he concludes, "I can't remember a single time I was conscious of the presence of the cameras. You just get so caught up. It's like a trial."

Well, it was just like a trial, but one of the more talkative criminals - that old tattletale John Dean, no less - claims in his book that one of the jurors - that old country lawyer, Howard Baker, no less - was less than impartial. Was, in fact, "playing both sides . . . demanding the truth, exchanging strategy messages with Colson."

Baker denies he was reporting to the Nixon camp.

"I didn't go back to Nixon. The only private meeting I ever had with Nixon was in February - at my request - while the committee was being formed. And I told him, 'I'm your friend. I think you're innocent. But I want to tell you as a friend and a lawyer, because I've been practicing law all my life, that you ought to get off this executive privilege and separation of powers stuff. Cause you ain't gonna win that thing.

"You ought to be sending people up there - Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman. You ought to be beating down the doors to testify."

Baker chuckles briefly to himself. "Looking back on it now, I don't wonder he looked so shocked."

But one senators says, "I think he was working hand in glove with the Nixon White House at the time. I don't mean lock, stock, and barrel in league, and there's nothing I know of personally. But I heard he was helping Nixon, I heard enough different things at the time . . ."

And so it's that sort of thing. "More of a feeling of deviousness, of political gossip than pointing to a particular instance," is how one senator puts it. And then he thinks a bit, and says, "Back in '70, there was a nasty little campaign against old Sen. Albert Gore. You know, the issues were busing, gun control, all the emotional ones. And I think Albert thought Baker would keep all this off him when they got right down to the lick-log. "Cause Albert had voted a lot like Baker on some things. But Baker unloaded on him, gave it to Brock, and unloaded on him."

When you get right down to the lick-log, what Baker will be fighting, should he decide to fight to the end, will be his reputation for . . . well . . . deviousness.

Will be, in other words, the other side of cunning, which is shifty. Howard Baker's most valuable asset, which is, to quote one senator, that he is "very shrewd and adroit - I mean a skilled practitioner of politics," is, paradoxically, also his biggest problem. Too much shrewdness, and people get nervous. Too much skill, and your sincerity is in question. Too much cunning, and all the ghosts get trotted out for inspection, and the ghost of Watergate, like all other phantoms is impossible to combat successfully.

In person, of course, he is not like that. In person, Howard Baker is just smart enough. In person, he is open up to a finite and sharply defined point, which he, in deference to all outside intelligence, takes special care to remark upon before you do. He would rather not speak extensively on Panama, he told many an audience in Cincinnati, before the announced his decision on that issue. Watergate, he says, "was an unspeakably dreadful time. Exhausting, sad, never exhilarating."

This is more than a little ungrateful on Howard Baker's part. For, of course, without the Watergate hearings, he might never have been minority leader. Or presidential timber. Or - least of all - speaking to the people of Cincinnati.

He talks a bit about Watergate at a small fat cats' dinner in Cincinnati. We are back, once again, at the Queen City Club: watery tomato juice, mushy chicken and ice cream.

And Baker, truth to tell, is doing almost all the talking. It doesn't take long to figure out one possible reason for the relative bashfulness of the others. Also attending this small dinner are Ron MacMahan and Lonnie Strunk, Baker's pilot, a young staffer whose clowning, candid nature and hillbilly accent seem to liven up every occasion except this one. Also attending this dinner are two reporters. It is, therefore, entirely possible, that the prominent people of Cincinnati who are at this dinner do not wish to speak candidly before the potential candidate for fear of seeing their candor in print.

And so a former Ford aide is asked - Isn't this a dreadful faux pas on the part of shrewd Howard Baker? Nice of him to ask the press along to dinner, courteous, even; but isn't he thereby alienating the prominent folk he hoped to impress?

The old Ford aide laughs and shakes his head. "That's the smartest thing Howard Baker could do right now. Now he's courting the press. Now he doesn't want to commit himself in private on any real issue to anyone. Later, when and if he declares himself a candidate for President - THEN, he might not ask the press along to private dinners with rich people. But for now, it suits him just fine.

There is one thing Baker does say to these people, after talking of his vain attempt to turn Richard Nixon into an honest man. Baker says, "I have a special reverence for past presidents and present presidents. Even Warren G. Harding."

Even Richard Nixon?

"Even Richard Nixon." The smile is melancholy.

The former Ford aide says something else about Baker. He says, "Howard Baker is going to be in one tough position. He's minority leader. That means he's going to have to take stands on things. Like he's done on Panama. Once he takes stands, he's bound to make enemies, either way he goes. He needs all the friends he can get if he wants to be president.

"Another thing. What with being minority leader and going around the country making speeches and all, Howard Baker is going to get tired - very tired, it's bound to happen. And when he gets real tired, he's going to start saying things off the cuff. And then he'll make mistakes."

To this Howard Baker replies, "Nobody gave me the job I have, to be non-controversial."

No, and nobody might give him the job he wants, either. But if that and all else fails, we still will not see Howard Baker on the unemployment lines. He is extremely well off, having sold his strip-mining land. He says that almost everything he has has been converted to liquid assets.

"I could afford not to be anything," he agrees. "I could afford to be nothing if I wanted to."

"Well now," teases his wife, "Well now, let's talk about that . . ."

"That doesn't mean," Baker addresses her solemnly, "that I could live in a grand and princely manner. But you'd have a house to go back to in Tennessee, you could buy groceries.

"But I'm not going to do that."

Well, of course not. Of course Howard Baker's not going to do that. The question is, as the question will continue to be these next few years - What IS he going to do?

"Joy and I have talked both ways," he says. "You know - 'Would you like to stay in the Senate or would you like to go home or would you like to run for president?' All the chips aren't on square one. There's a lot to be said for not running."

His voice lowers. "But Joy's attitude and mine at present is that we'll just push on with the thing."

Hearing he name mentioned, Joy Dirksen Baker looks up from her reverie. "What did you say?"

"I was saying," her husband says, "that I'm not running for president, but that I might."

Joy Baker grins slyly. "You're playing Scarlett O'Hara."

Howard Baker grins back. "I got a hunch," he says, because he knows this business so very well. "I got a hunch that's going to be a quote."