Steve Wiley knew he was considered more than a little weird in those days. Not only was it 1968, but it was California 1968, and Wiley was a Young American for Freedom.

One day on campus at the University of Southern California, he was, as usual, sitting behind his table of right-wing books and pamphlets. A UCLA leftist organizer came up to the table, started arguing, then yelling. Finally, he pulled a knife and took a slice at Wiley's midriff. Wiley jumped fast, so only his shirt was cut.

"On college campuses in the late '60s," he says today, "it was dangerous to be a conservative."

These days, the danger and the weirdness are behind him. Wiley and the 450 other Young Americans for Freedom gathered in Washington for their 10th annual convention this week are full of hope for a new decade that almost titillates with its promise of conservative glory.

The convention and the movement are attracting some big-name conservatives this year, most notably James J. Kilpatrick. The columnist and television commentator was roasted at a dinner last night. ("Now I know why they call Kilpatrick a polished speaker -- just look at that head," said Rick Abell, national chairman of the Young Republicans. "It must be nice for you to have all your readers in one room," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-- Mass.) telegrammed,)

After the roast, Kilpatrick was serious about the growth of conservatism. "I don't know that we have a tidal wave coming," he said. "But it's perceptibly more conservative than it has been. It's fascinating for me to discover how many of these YAF chapters there are across the country."

Even former senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), who was one of the roasters, offered a positive joke to the YAF convention "Republicans are very difficult to kill," he said. "Sort of like moths on a rock."

On Wednesday night, YAF founder William F. Buckley addressed the young hopefuls at the Shoreham-Americana gathering. They rose and applauded.

"I notice," he said, "that some of your members have nominated me as godfather of Young Americans for Freedom. I am not your parent, though I like to think I contributed to the genetic pool from which you issued."

It has been 19 years since a handful of well-connected conservatives got together in Buckley's Sharon, Conn., living room to draft the "Sharon Statement" as the founding guidelight of YAF. Since than, 55,000 under-40-year-olds have mailed in $10 checks to become members of a movement that is mostly white, male and lower middle class. Only about 7,000 of those have signed the Sharon Statement, a document that terms communism the greatest single threat to American liberty.

The 19 years have been erratic for the Yaffers, a nickname they thought up themselves before the opposition could. Manhattan 1963 was a very good year; Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) filled Madison Square Garden with a "Rally for Freedom." U.S.A. 1968 was a very bad year; Yaffers like Wiley were harassed on the campuses.

And now Washington 1979 is a good year again, a year, they say, that will launch the conservative '80s. Vietnam is over, but its inflation remains to anger Americans tired of the taxes and the bureaucrats. Jimmy Carter has, they assert, lost the liberals; but the field of Republican candidates is fat and diverse.

"It's the best time in the world to be conservative," says John Wallace, a Texas Yaffer from Baylor University. He's eating a $3.75 cheeseburger ("In Texas, a meal like this would cost two and a quarter, max") at California Joe's across from the Shoreham. About 10 other Texas Yaffers are at an outside table consuming the identical meal, carefully avoiding an afternoon session on the history of conservatism. Dull, they say.

The dress at the table is three-piece suits, American flag pins, neat haircuts and gallon hats; the talk is in-house politics. Or more specifically, which of 22 YAF candidates will win nine open spots on the organization's national board in today's elections. Only two of those running are women.

Which brings up another table topic. How come there are so few women in YAF? (Ron Robinson, the executive director, puts female membership at about a third, and women constitute only 10 to 15 percent of the convention.)

The Texans have a few theories: a) Women don't like politics; b) Women only like politics for social reasons and there are a lot of socially unacceptable "nerds" in YAF; c) Feminism has created a run on "sensitive" men and there's a "misconception that men in politics aren't sensitive."

Lilli Dollinger says they're all wrong. She's one of those two women running for the national board, and she thinks that women aren't in politics for social reasons any more than the men are. She also thinks that feminists are forcing the women's issue a little too fast.

"I don't want to be elected because I'm a woman," she says. "I want to be elected because I'm the best candidate."

Dollinger is 20 and from Beaumont, Tex., where she did all the right things: secretary of the senior class, a member of the drill team, secretary of the National Honor Society, a drama club member, and so on and so forth. She is against abortion, marijuana and premarital sex. "You'd be surprised how many people are," she says about the sex. "It's just a question of general morality."

Marianne Kopko is 30, from Newton, Conn., and one of her claims to fame is a $500 collection of Nixon memorabilia. The YAF convention is a good chance for her to add to it, and so she buys more than $100 worth of new buttons and medals from Frank Enten.

"I know I look like a nut," she says. "But I'm not a fanatic. I collect the buttons put out by the Democrats as well. See, here's one." She holds up a button that reads: "Nixon knew."

Of course, the Yaffers are quick to point out that they are not Republicans, but nonpartisan conservatives. Their goal, they say, is limited government and all that concept entails: tax cuts, a voluntary military, the rejection of SALT II and cuts in the size of the federal government. They are also quick to say that despite their 3 percent black membership and stand against busing, they are not, repeat not, racits,

Charles Hardy is 23, and one of a sparse number of blacks at the convention. He doesn't feel odd at all, he says.

"I can go along with their platform" he says. "I look within liberal politics and I don't see measures being made to assure us a place there, I see a lot of handouts being made to keep us happy, but I don't want handouts."

Then ther's Mike Baroody, who's 17, from Lincoln, Va; He was 6 in 1968 and doesn't remember much about the SDS or even the Vietnam War. "I saw something about it on TV," he offers. His main concern these days, he says, is getting into the Air Force Academy.

To Wiley, now more than a decade away from the California knifing, the 17-year-olds and the blacks and the women mean good news.

"We are what the mainstream of the people think,' he insists. "We're getting a strength, a fervor, that we didn't have before. Here all these people are saying, 'Yeah, I'm for Kennedy.' Well, ask them where they stand on the issues and hell, they're all conservative."