"A woman, I would hope, would be a help to her husband no matter what he does. Of course, the more successful he is the more important her role becomes." Nancy Reagan in a 1971 interview for Smith College

At the door to the reception, carefully made-up ladies are checking off names. Next to the reception table is a little Reagan shrine set up by Dot, a diminutive, buxom, middle-aged hostess in a perilously low-cut black strapless chiffon evening dress and a towering red beehive.

The shrine features a table draped in red, white and blue, with matching dyed carnations, a gilt-framed portrait of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy outfit, a tape recorder playing a continuous contry version of "America the Beautiful." Dot is offering a 45-rpm record of the song plus a picture of Reagan, all for only $10.

The $1,000-a-couple Reagan supporters pour into the reception on the mezzanine of the Houston Hyatt Regency. They are there to raise money for the Texas primary this Saturday. Suddenly, there is a little flurry.

It is Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, accompanied by John and Nellie Connally and a phalanx of Secret Service agents.

Nancy Reagan looks regal. She is dressed in a dark dress and jacket with tiny flowers. Her hair is immaculately done, her smile is effusive, her eyes shine as she gazes at her husband, who is stopping along the way to shake hands with supporters and chat with the press.

Together they walk past the Reagon shrine, the handsome, popular, front-running presidential candidate and his lovely wife, the perfect potential first lady.

She bestows upon the well-wishers a smile and a tiny nod of her head as the couple disappears into the inner sanctum of privilege and power.

At the entrance to the reception room stands a state senator enthusiastically explaining to a listener why Ronald Reagan appeals to the public.

"John Sears said he shouldn't go talk to people because he might say something wrong," the senator is saying. "Well shoot, if he's afraid he'll say something wrong at one of these receptions, what about when he's president?" The senator laughs and rolls his eyes, then confides, "These are the easiest things in the world. You walk in, shake a few hands. . . he's got a big, built-in constituency. Hell," he chuckles, "they can accuse him of anything, anything, and the people will still vote for him."

The crowd waiting for the rally in the Hyatt Regency ballroom later that evening is not as heavy as expected, not even 1,000 people. They stand dutifully, patiently for nearly two hours despite some 100 empty chairs in the front row reserved for the handicapped.

The same Reagan picture from the shrine has been tacked up on the lectern and a large "Viva Ole!Nancy" sign is placed prominently on the wall.

There are five American flags on the stage. Buddy Brock's orchestra is playing "You Ain't Nuthin' but a Hound Dog," and the pay bar is serving Coors beer and no other.

The crowd is docile, as if they are all on some mood regulator.

Enter John Connally and his wife, Nellie, now supporting the Reagan candidacy. Conally gets a rousing response from the audience. Juices start to flow. There is an air of electricity.

"I always said Governor Reagan was the second-best-qualified man in the country," says Connally with a wicked grin. They cheer loudly.

"I had my doubts, I must say to you in all candor, 15 months ago . . . but in state after state, Ronald Reagan has penetrated to the depths of this country." There is an element of wonder in Conally's voice. "He has established a rapport with the working people. He has the ability to communicate with the average American. I know what I'm speaking about . . . I see the people come, they'll have their tractor caps on, their hands will be callused, they will speak with a dialect . . . the great mass of Americans are looking for hope . . . I don't think they can take those supporters away from him."

The audience stands and nods knowingly. Approvingly. They give him rousing applause, and he joins his wife as the Reagans appear on cue from behind the stage.

Ronald Reagan is tall and handsome and looks quite young from a distance. He strides confidently on stage. Nancy comes in beside him. The audience cheers. Nancy gazes up at him, smiling, her eyes still sparkling.

Now the electricity disappears, the emotional level subsides. An EKG would show the audience's pulse to be normal, steady.

Nancy gives John a big hug and kiss. Ronnie gives Nellie a polite kiss. John gives Ronnie a hearty handshake. Nancy gives Nellie a peck.

Nancy, John and Nellie sit, Ronnie takes the lectern. Nancy settles comfortably into The Gaze.

She can sit perfectly still, her ankles neatly crossed, her hands resting calmly in her lap, her chin uplifted, her eyes glistening, her lips smiling . . . for what seems like hours . . . and hang raptly on his every word no matter what he is saying, no matter how many times she has heard it before in their 28-year marriage.

She never seems to get an itch, her lips never stick to her teeth, she hardly blinks. Don't her legs ever go to sleep? Haven't they ever had a terrible fight just before the speech? Isn't she ever bored hearing the whole thing over and over and over?

Here's what she says about: "My first taste of political sniping came when I learned it was being said that my watching Ronnie when he spoke was an act . . . I like to hear Ronnie speak even when I've heard the speech before. I think he's great."

Ronald Reagan begins his talk with a standard, slightly dated joke. He describes a Democratic debate: Jerry Brown, who is on both sides of every issue; Teddy Kennedy, who is on the wrong side of every issue, and Jimmy Carter, who doesn't even know what the issues are. They laugh. So does Nancy.

He tells the audience he wants to take a look at the issues, then goes back to the "War between the States." (In the South, one never says "Civil War" because "there weren't nuthin' civil about it.")

He talks about the government taking money away from the citizens in taxes.

"Tell it like it is, Ronnie," shouts someone.

Nancy sees the camera zooming in on her out of the corner of her unblinking eye. Instinctively she turns to the cameras, smiling broadly until they pan from her and onto her husband. She falls right back into The Gaze.

"We're going to whack that government down to size," Ronnie is telling them. They cheer. She claps.

"There's enough fat in the government that if we rendered it and made soap out of it, it would wash the world." They cheer.

"We're going to transfer back the welfare to the states." They cheer.

"The problem with the schools is that federal aid has become federal interference." They cheer.

"We're going to cut income-tax rates 10 percent a year for three years for everybody." They cheer.

He is speaking softly -- soothingly, consolingly. He is there to reassure. He is the family doctor telling them the cancer can be cured. They know he won't disappoint them. That he will tell them what they want to hear.

They know all the lines, the responses, even the jokes. They've heard them for 14 years. It is comforting, like Jack Benny doing jokes about being 39 Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."

Nancy understands what they want and she knows her husband has the key. She also knows what she wants and her husband is the key. All she has to do is play the supporting role, at least publicly. If there was ever a role she was cut out to play, it is that of the perfect first lady. It requires almost no effort. Gaze adoringly at her husband, smile, dress well, be polite, do or say nothing controversial.

Together they are Doris Day and Rock Hudson filmed through gauze, Muzak and Mantovani, the Hyatt House and Marriott Hotels . . . You get what you come for; nothing more, nothing less. You know what the towels will look like, where the TV set is, what's on the menu and how to turn on the air conditioning.

Throughout Reagan's speech, John Connally is watching him with a mixture of frustration and puzzlement, as though Connally is asking himself, what has that SOB got that I haven't got.

His wife Nellie is animated and curious. She squirms a bit in her chair, watches Reagan, then looks out at the audience to see how they are reacting, crosses and uncrosses her legs, looks down at her lap, glances over at her husband.

Nancy never moves. She gazes.

Her husband is telling a receptive audience that there is enough oil in the United States.

He's saying the U.S. has betrayed its allies and appeased it enemies abroad and "it's time for us to tell them we don't care whether they like us or not."

The crowd cheers loudly for the first time all night.

It sounds so right. He makes you want to believe it can work. See Nancy. She does. He makes you want to make a wish and blow the candles out, whistle a happy tune, put your tooth under the pillow.

"What would you do with th ayatollah?" asks somebody in the audience.

"I would do what should have been done five months ago."

The crowd cheers.

"I would send SALT II back to 'em so fast they's think we had a new post office . . . no more of this hanky panky with so-called strategic arms limitations."

Echoes of George Wallace without the accent, a cleaner act, a nicer guy.

"Awwwwwwwwwww riiiiiiiiiiiiight," someone yells for the background.

Things are going extremely well. He has taken the last question, and then he relents and takes one more. It is a mistake. The man identifies himself as part of a local motorcycle gang in Houston called the Toters. He has long, stringy, greasy hair, a black leather vest over a T-shirt, black cap and tattoos on his arm.

This is not in the script.

"I'm a scooter rider. They're trying to take us all off the road, I'm not a Bandido. I'm no Hell's Angel. But we can't wear our colors."

Reagan is confused. The audience gets upset. They are uncomfortable. Who are these people and what are they doing here?

His state chairman quickly tries to grab the mike and say good night and get the Reagans out. Reagan is trying to be polite, straining to understand what this heckler is saying.

After another explanation from the Toter, Reagan mumbles, "If it has to do with helmets, in California when I was governor . . ." and he finishes weakly with something about how the government tried to take motorcycle licenses away.

For the first time all evening Nancy moves. She looks nervously at Nellie, raises her eyes and then raises one arm and carefully pats her hair. Then the arm goes back to her lap and she stares up again at her husband, who keeps trying to explain.

"They wouldn't let us wear our colors," insists the scooter rider.

Then Reagan brightens as he remembers one of his favorite campaign expressions. "It's not necessary to make them see the light," he tells the audience with something of relief in his voice. "Sometimes you have to make them feel the heat."

They cheer. Nancy claps.

What do they want, the Reagans? Here is a man nearly 70 years old, already retired, rich, well-liked, surrounded by friends and family, putting himself forward for the next eight years in one of the most gruelling jobs in this country. It is a job that has aged much younger men, and has taken its toll physically and psychologically on men much stronger and brighter than Ronald Reagan.

Why is he doing it? Why is she encouraging him?

"Because," says a very close former Reagan staffer, "Nancy wants to be queen.

"Do not underestimate Nancy. She knows what she wants. She has made up her mind where she was going to go, and she would get ronnie to take her. He is her vehicle."

Nancy Reagan, though an actress in her early years before marriage, was never considered a major success in the movie industry. "Nancy Reagan," says a longtime observer, "wants to be well-known and famous.She needs him to achieve it for her. She desperately wants him to be president."

Once Reagan had been denied the nomination in the last election, it was easy for her to persuade him that he should run this time.

"That motivated them initially," explains a former close adviser. "He felt he should have been the nominee and that he would have beaten Carter. Once you get him into the middle of that campaign, he gets into it and likes it. I think he wants it now more than ever before."

"But not," according to another observer, "as much as Nancy."

Nancy Reagan has written her autobiography. It is called "Nancy" and was timed to coincide with the campaign.

Those who know her well say that the book was to have the dual purpose of promoting her as a personality and helping her husband get elected. At first it didn't sell to well. Now the sales are picking up.

The book was written "with Bill Libby," a professional writer who tape-recorded interviews with Nancy Reagan and then put it together.

Some executives at William Morrow & Co. say they are not happy with the book.

One of the top editors complained bitterly. "Bill Libby taped her, then she cut the hell out of it," he said "Then he did it again and she cut it again. She didn't want to say [certain] things."

According to this source, subjects Nancy chose to avoid in her book were:

Her birth date. Bill Libby fought to get it in, but she absolutely refused. Finally he sneaked it in his forward. She was born July 6, 1923.

Jane Wyman's name. Wyman was Ronald Reagan's first wife and the mother of his two eldest children. "She did not want to admit [in print] who Reagan's first wife was."

Much of the original copy about Ronald Reagan. "She wanted it to be her book." She also fought to have the picture of her with her husband removed from the back of the book jacket. She lost.

Any but the most perfunctory references to her children. "she would not talk about her children. She'd had a lot of trouble with her daughter living with a fellow, and she didn't want to have to say it in the book. About that her son being a ballet dancer she said, 'Let's leave it at the fact that they're artistic.'"

Close friends of Libby's say that he was embarrassed by the book.

Libby will only say, "She was nice to work with, but when it came to getting everything in the book it was very difficult to get her to do that. She didn't humanize herself as much as I would have liked her to."

One of the top editors at Morrow was more explicit.

"The book was all sweetness and light," he says. "And she had this strange feeling that she did not want to be upstaged by Ronnie. We had to say to her, 'Look, we're publishing theis book because you're the wife of a presidential candidate.' I get the impression that he's not all the anxious to be president. He'd just as soon relax. But she is a former screen personality fighting for her life."

Nancy Reagan has taken time off from her busy campaign schedule to promote her book. An interview is set up in a suite at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan.

The suite is a formal drawing room. A PR person from Morrow and a Reagan aide appear.

Shortly afterwards, Nancy Reagan enters. She is wearing a navy and red Adolfo suit. She is immaculately turned out.

She perches on the edge of a settee, her legs pressed together in a ladylike position, her hands resting on her lap. She is poised for the first question. p

Her assistant brings in an enormous tape recorder and plunks in ominously on the table next to the settee. She presses the button and Nancy Reagan smiles as though the camera had suddenly been turned to her.

It is as if Nancy is sitting on the other side of a piece of bulletproof glass.

Asking her a question is like putting the fare in the taxie driver's slot in the glass partition. She takes the question carefully, almost suspciously, and ponders it as the driver would count the money, then returns the answer reluctantly, the way the cabbie would send back the change, not expecting to receive a tip.

The American people want a change, according to Nancy Reagan, and part of that is a change to the old values of the past. For Nancy Reagan, that wouldn't be any change at all.

"I don't think I've really changed, as far as principles I believe in. As you get older you certainly learn and expand and mature. In that sense, you know, if you talk about change which I think is healthy and should happen, you're not growing . . . . I think you know, the basic values are still there, have always been there. We've gone through periods where it wasn't terribly chic to talk about them . . .. It bothered me. I talked about them. I feel that other people are now thinking it's okay . . . if you go around and travel as much as we do, in the questions-and-answers there were always a lot of people out there who believed as I believed. But they were reticent to say so."

She is speaking in frosty tones. She closes the slit in her skirt over her knees and straightens up.

It is clear she has had some criticism and is prepared for it at all times. Yet she says that she and her husband can overcome it if they get elected and they end up in the White House. Of their quest, she says:

"What it comes down to is duty, and Ronnie feels it very strongly. Somebody has to do it . . . it's not a question of wanting to live in the White House," she insists. "It's wanting to do something for the country."

Criticism does get to her, she admits. "I know the type of ones that really upset me. I don't mind honest differences of opinion. What I really mind is somebody who says something about me that he knows is not true, is really unfair and personal. The fact that he knows it is untrue -- that really bothers me. He'll do it for expediency."

As for political rumors and gossip, "I used to think the picture business had the corner on rumors. But that's child's play."

Nancy Reagan was still stinging from the ethnic joke her husband told in New Hampshire and still angry at the reporters who blew his cover.

"It's too bad, because now it changes things. Yeah, as I gather, it's kind of an unwritten rule among reporters . . . you're relaxing unless you're having a definite interview so it's too bad from the point of view of the press . . .

Both Nancy Reagan and her husband have been vehement about her lack of influence over him and have been heard to say over and over that she would not attend Cabinet meetings -- a not-so-veiled reference to Rosalynn Carter.

She stares straight at the interviewer as if to defy any probing, controversial or personal question. Her answers are terse, rehearsed.

"We're all different," she says of Rosalynn. ". . . I don't really feel that it's right to criticize, but if I were there I wouldn't be sitting in on Cabinet meetings . . . that may be right for Carter . . . "

She will say that "obviously we talk politics all the time. If you've been married for 28 years you influence each other. You can't be married that long and not influence each other. We're in agreement about most of the fundamental issues. We may disagree about how to approach a problem."

As for her involvement in policy decisions, she demurs. "No, No." She would have no part of those, although "certainly if he wanted to talk about it . . . if he wants a sounding board, it helps to formulate your own opinions."

She also says she doesn't know what feminism means any more than she knows what conservatism means, so she wouldn't call herself a feminist.

"Of course," she says, "I believe in equal rights for everybody." The ERA is something else. "A better way to go about it is by statute. It's easier and quicker."

She herself, through, would not have considered continuing in her career after she married. Nor does she ever wish she had.

"Never. Never. I always knew that when I got married that would be it."

The time is up. The interview has lasted 30 minutes. Nancy Reagan ends it with a remark about the campaign, "I've said it before; I'll say it again. iThey wear everbody out. . ."

Just as she is about to leave the suite, she walks over and places both her hands in a tight grip on the reporter's shoulders. She takes the opportunity to berate the reporter for what she considered to be an inaccurate characterization of her husband made several weeks earlier on TV.

Finally she loosens her grip. Smiles. And leaves.

"Over the years," Nancy Reagan wrote at the end of her book, "there have been some wonderful "tomorrows' that became treasured yesterdays. I don't know now what tomorrow will bring, but like Scarlett, I guess I'll think about it. . .tomorrow. Meanwhile, there is a lot of living to do today."

In 1971 Nancy Davis Reagan gave an interview to Smith College for the Smith Centennial Study.

Nancy Reagan was Class of 1943 at Smith, where she lived in Talbot House and majored in theater. In a questionnaire submitted for her 25th reunion, she listed her full-time career as "politics! and wife and mother."

In the interview with Jacqueline Van Voris, later excerpted in "College:

A Smith Mosaic," she talked mostly about her views on a women's role and the role of society.

"I was never really a career woman," she said. "When I graduated I went on to become an actress, not really because I wanted a career but only because I hadn't found the man I wanted to marry and I couldn't sit around and do nothing, so I became an actress. I just kind of fall into these things, really."

She was asked by the interviewer if she would ever have gone into politics herself.

Oh my heavens no!" she replied. "I'm pretty old-fashioned about things like the woman's place in marriage and home and motherhood and all of those things. I'm certainly very much out of step with the current philosophy and feelings. I do believe that a woman's real fulfilment comes in her relationship in her home and finding the right man and having children. This is where your real happiness is. Everything else is kind of cream, but that's where your real happiness is, regardless of what your husband is doing. I don't believe in women's liberation, as you can see."

She talked then about campus life.

"I think the campuses, and I have to include Smith, have been much too political. The students, most of them, don't have much sense of humor anymore. They're all so occupied with solving the world's problems that they can't enjoy the four years they have in college -- football games, dancing hot dogs -- you didn't have to exclude everything else from your life."

She talked about how distrubed she was about the educational system: "The whole thing has gotten much too permissive and less disciplined than I would like to see. You should have to do more things. There should be more requirement, more discipline."

(The wife of a very famous actor in Hollywood says of her: "Nancy Reagan is one of those women like Grace Kelly or Dina Merrill. She can't finish a paragraph without using the word discipline.")

After Nancy Davis Reagan graduated from Smith she worked in the theater in New York, helped by friends of her mother, who had also been an actress. She appeared in "Lute Song," starring Mary Martin and Yul Brynner, was seen by a talent scout, and after a screen test for MGM in California she was signed to a contract.

She was doing a picture with Mervyn Leroy and "there was a mixup," as she tells it. "I was getting phone calls and mail for other Nancy Davies." There were five other actresses named Nancy Davis. One in particular "was politically on the other side of me.

"I complained to Leroy about it. He recommended Ronald reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. He had Ronald Reagan call me and he was right. That was it."

The big question, of course, is how much influence does Nancy Reagan have over her husband.

This never used to be much of an issue until Jimmy Carter became president and Rosalyn Carter began to emerge as a major adviser. Since then, the wives of candidates have been more closely scrutinized.

Nancy Reagan is somewhat of a mystery because she is the most avowedly unliberated of all the wives, yet reputedly has the most influence over her husband.

Compared with Barbara Bush, Betty Ford (though not in the running), Joan Kennedy, Keke Anderson or even Rosalynn Carter (the least accessible), Nancy Reagan comes off as cold, aloof, unreal.

The other women, for better or worse, have exposed themselves to the public and have shown a human side.

To understand what her role would be as first lady, one must talk to former campaign aides, most of whom are unwilling to talk on the record for fear of being excluded from a Reagan presidency.

One former staffer who has had his ups and downs with her says that "she is a strong woman who has influence. But he's not her creature. I've heard them disagree. She will argue with him, quarrel with him and then at some point he will tell her to cut it out when he's had enough."

As for their close relationship, he asks: "I've often wondered how much of it is real. Are they a couple of actors who have made up their minds to play a part and have played it so long it has become real? With her it is difficult to tell where the acting ends and where the real feeling begins."

"She's all surface, all pose," says a person who worked closely with her on the book. "She doesn't give you anything of herself. You never could get her to drop her mask. He's a great guy. Even people who don't like him as a presidental candidate think he's a great man, a friendly guy. He's exactly the opposite from her."

There are few people who claim to know Nancy Reynolds, Ronald Reagan's former press secretary and special assistant who also traveled with Nancy Reagan occasionally and acted as her press secretary.

Reynolds, who is now vice president for national affairs at the Bendix Corp. here, says that Nancy Reagan "certainly has influence" over her husband. "He absolutely worships her, adores her."

Nancy Reagan, she says, "wants whatever makes him happy. That makes her happy." But, says Reynolds, if she were not interested in politics at all, "it would have stopped a long time ago."

The real Nancy Reagan, says Reynolds, is the one she saw visiting hospitals as a governor's wife. "Anybody who could walk into ward after ward of severly burned people and severely retarded people has to have some special personality. I had to walk out, but it never, never bothered her. She was horrified anyone would say she would use it for publicity."

Reynolds says Nancy Reagan is a "warm and understanding person. But over the years she's built up a cautionusness. She's very reserved. She's not your bouncy, extroverted, gregarious next-door neighbor.

"Everbody," says Reynolds, "wants a piece of the man. They fight like sharks. She's very protective. If she has to be the hatchet man, the bad guy, she'll do it. Thank God for her, because he's Mr. Nice Guy."

A former staffer thinks that Nancy's "got a good political head. She tends to be defensive and she is dedicated to him for better or for worse. She deals with the staff much more imperioulsy than he does. She is complaining and demanding. When she gets something on her mind she'll heckle you until she wins. She has been known not to speak to people on the staff for months if she gets angry."

"Nancy fits in," says former campaign manager John Sears. "She's very close to him. She doesn't tell him what to do in a substantive way. They have a very good marriage. When it comes to having their private moments, they both have them with each other and rarely with anyone else. I would like to stress that. . . She is not a person who dives into substance of a political kind. She's not interested. She has good instincts about people. He's a very easygoing person. She is less so."

Nancy Reagan has called undue influence over one's husband "an occupational hazard of the most first ladies."

Nevertheless she is believed to be responsible for turning Reagan against women's issues. Nancy always has been openly against women's liberation. Her husband has not. In 1972 he wrote to a woman who was running a fund-raiser for "Men for ERA," saying that he would not be able to attend the "Getting to Know the Amendment meeting" but that I am in full support of the ERA and will be pleased if you are able to find a use for my name in attracting additional support." Now he is against the ERA.

Most people who know the Reagans agree that Nancy's real strength and influence over her husband comes from her total dedication to him, a closeness in the relationship and a determination to get her way.

Someone who has worked with her believes that "she doesn't know a hell of a lot about politics.She wants him to be in a position of power. She has no passion for politics, but a passion for center stage."

They are sitting in the back of the limousine. The reporter and the press aide pull out the jump seats and face them. The reporter and the press aide simultaneously pull out their tape recorders.

The limousine pulls away from the Balleria Plaza in Houston. The reporter starts to ask a question. The candidate looks out the window and smiles and waves to the crowds on either side of the street. The reporter stops talking.

"Go ahead," he says. "I can talk and wave at the same time."

Ronald Reagan has a receptive face. He watches eagerly as a question is asked, then answers it as if he is answering a question in a quiz.

Nancy watches. Carefully. She is wearing a white Adolfo suit with an orange print blouse. She is also wearing a Viva Ole button that clashes with the orange. But she wears it bravely.

His eyes are clear and deep and blue. He has a nice face. He looks pretty good for his age. Very few wrinkles. A few broken blood vessels in his cheeks give the impression of robust color from a distance.

No matter what the question is, he beams and answers readily. He is open and direct. He is asked about his wife's influence over him.

"The truth of the matter is, that kind of story. . . the idea that Nancy is somehow behind the scenes is absolutely false. This dates back so far as to suggest Nancy was the reason I had to switch from Democratic to Republican. None of that is true. As a matter of fact, if she weren't listening I would say that when I married Nancy she didn't have any worry or concern or interest in politics at all. . . We never believed for one minute that I would be interested in seeking public office. . . . Sure we influence each other. There are no secrets between us. I tell her what's going on. If she had a suggestion or thought, I hear it. She did not sit in on my Cabinet meetings."

His eyes crinkle with that one.

"She does not advocate changes in personnel. . . She's really what you see."

As for Nancy's stepfather, surgeon Loyal Davis, it has been reported that he was the one who turned Nancy Reagan into an ultraconservative and subsequently had the same effect on his son-in-law.

Nancy speaks up guardly. "Usually the line goes -- the ultraconservative, the wealthy ultraconservative doctor. First of all, he's not wealthy. Second of all, he's not ultraconservative. Thirdly, he was never involved in politics, he was too busy with surgery. I don't know where that one ever came from."

This is one of many things written about the Reagans that irritates them.

But one often-repeated error bothers him more than most.

"A truism of many writers," says Reagan, leaning forward, is that "in motion pictures I was the fellow who never got the girl.

"Well," he says with a note of triumph in his voice, "I always got the girl."

As for other errors, he says, "Ask Nancy."

Nancy Reagan, sitting poised and quiet throughout the first part of the interview, shrugs. She is showing admirable restraint.

"The dyed-hair one," volunteers Reagan, "which is plainly false. As anyone can see I'm getting gray hair. . ." He bends forward.

"A more substantive one," he says, is "If you talk about cutting down on government sometimes you give the idea that you're against the poor, that you're not compassionate, that you're not sympathetic to people's needs. That's not the truth.

"One doesn't necessarily preclude the other."

"In actual fact," chips in Nancy, "he's the softest touch around."

Political pundits have been puzzled this election year of the groundswell support and popularity of Ronald Reagan.

Not Ronald Reagan.

He understands why people like him.

"For one thing, I like 'em," he says. "I like people. I guess maybe it's my origins. Where I came from."

And he understands them. He's had exposure.

"I was on the mashed potato circuit," he says. . . "In Hollywood if you don't sing and dance, you speak."

Now it's Nancy's turn. She has her own idea why her husband has such a loyal following.

"Somehow, for some reason," she says slowly, "it's built up for a lot of years. A lot of politicians go into office with people not being exposed to them. People just like him. They feel he likes them. A warmth and a rapport is immediately established. They trust him. They trust his integrity."

"One thing," he adds enthusiastically, "If I don't believe it I can't say it."

"He's a people person," says Nancy. "They feel that."

"One of the reasons I try, wherever I'm scheduled to speak," he says, "I prefer it if they have Q and A."

He likes the interchange with the people, he says.

He's not as crazy about the interchange with the press.

He has noticed now that he appears to be assured the Republican nomination the press is getting sharper, more critical, more scrutinizing. "I've had a feeling," he says good-naturedly, "that after the last couple of primaries, the death watch is on."

But criticism doesn't bother Ronald Reagan. He's used to it. As his limousine pulls up to the chartered flight and several aides and Secret Service agents fling open the doors, he lingers to finish his thought.

"One thing," he says, "in the business I was in I had to pick up the papers and read what they said about my performance. You can at times get annoyed. Being human you show it. I try not to. Sometimes you do. I try to remember the greatest movie ever made. When I made "King's Row" it got the worst reviews. Everbody assailed it."

He pauses for the first time.

"And you know, the only people who liked it were. . .the people."

Nancy Reagan smiles.