"We're not playing chess on a country club porch. We're playing international hardball."

Sen. paul Laxalt (R-Nev) Opening metaphorical pitch for the Con Team. The Great Panama Canal Debate of '78.

In sports-crazed America, all the world's a game and if, as they say, horse racing is the sport of kings, then word play is the sport of United States senators.

On the Senate floors, they call it debate: talking to and at each other, so it seems. But hearing it over National Public Radio, only the widest-ayed - or as it were, widest-eared - innocent could doubt for even a moment that he participants in the Great Panama Canal Debate are passphrases not so much to persuade their colleaues as to score points with a larger audience.

To be sure, that in itself is hardly anything new. Once, in a pre-electronic Golden Age when an orator's microphone was his own diaphragm, booming his words across the chamber to the farthest reach of the galleries, Senate debate was high spectator sport, played according to rules set down by Aristotle, embellished by Cicero, and adapted by the rhetorical giants of British parliamentary discourse and our own native legens - Randolph, Webster, Calhoun, Stephen Douglas.

More recently, however, the game has fallen into decline, Fan interest has been at an all-time low as American rhetoric, Senate chamber-style, turned well, lackluster.

There has been reason for this decline, of course, beyond the simplistic view of some traditional aficionados who traced the cause to a genetic fault in our native rhetorical strain. The fact is that modern American Senators, no ages, are practical men who adapt to new field conditions in order to stay the course. So they save their banquet circuit and the TV talk shows.

This is to say that tradition is fine and dandy but when a latter-day Politicain feels he has anything important to say, he gravitates to the cameras and microphones. Thus, the Senate's own archaie rules against in-chamber broadcasting have reduced the quality of the game, it being clear oto all but parliamentary recluses like Sen. Jim Allen (D-Ala.) that a single appearance on a national network is worth any number of untelevised, unrecorded, perorations ot half-empty galleries.

The rules are different, the game site, too.

So it is that inrecent years, Senate foundered as a spectator sport. The best rhetorical game has been played outside the chamber: low-keyed, modulated, suited for "Meet the Press." When Senators did take to the floor they talked to themselve, in canned phrases. Until, that is, midday Wednesday, Feb.8,1978.

Mark the date, Because if this fan is any judge, it will be noted in future seasons as a turning point in congressional rhetoric, as significant as th sixth game of the 1976 World Series was to the game of baseball.

Decline, nothing. The game is coming back. And this, understand, is the opinion of a rhetoric fancier who tuned in expecting to be bored: but who, six hours later as Sens. Robert Byrd and Allen polished the day with a series of quick forensic thrusts, was still listening.

Conceded, for a while, right at the outset, the contest had its shaky moments, According to advance billing, we were to be treated to AN HISTORIC FIRST . . . LIVE FROM THE SENATE. But in the opening hour there was every indication that NPR's historic first might well be a Super Bowl of modern political debate a dull anti-climax to public discussion of an issue that left its most entertaining moments of the play-off field somewhere between William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan.

The problem is that in depicting Washington politics, art has always exaggerated life. To the vast majority of Americans who never have seen or heard a congressional debate, the entertainment standard by which flesh-and-blood politicians are measured is the image of Jimmy Stewart collapsing in the well of a Capra-ized Senate. For such novitiate listeners, the disembodied voice of Jim Allen propounding Twenty Questions to Vice President Mondale regarding the parliamentary ground rules of the forthcoming debate had to be a cultural downer.

Fortunately, however, the opening addrresses were the low rhetorical points of the afternoon. Real action followed. Even heated exchanges, thanks to Sen. Frank Church's insistence that opposing players be given the right to raise pointed questions during the course of other members speeches, in order that the proceedings not degenerate into "proforma prations made to the public radio."

It was Church who emerged as the premier phrase-maker on opening day ("Empires have melted away like so many icebergs in the spring.") As a total enunciator the senator from Idaho has no equal in the Senate since the death of Everett Dirksen.

On the Con side, phrase-making honors went to Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) Indeed, what was perceived as Dole's weakness as a national candidate two years ago is his forte as a Senate debater. He is biting, caustic and not always subtle in making points: but Dole does not bore.

As a Senate debater, Howard Baker, on the other hand, does; which offers some insight into the difference between Senate debate and TV talk show, at which Baker excels and Dole sometimes comes off as the smart . . . of the Midwestern world.

But the surprising thing about that historic first day of congressional floor broadcast coverage is : Though we thought we had heard all these arguments befoe (which we have) the event lived up to its billing. It was edifying. It was entertaining. It was as if the members of the Semate, knowing that their chamber had once more become an arena for spectator interest, had got their game together for the first time in a quarter century. And think of it, with four weeks to go, we have yet to hear from Wild Pat Maynihan and Sominex Sam Hayakawa!