It was last fall and the California advisers who had know Reagan all these years were sitting it out -- fuming as John Sears, the current chief strategist, had gained control of Reagan's heart and mind and campaign. One of the old California crowed watched the Iowa debate with all the Republican candidates assembled save Reagan. He later placed a phone call to Reagan. "Who was Connally's campaign manager?" lhe asked. Regan didn't know. The Californian said, "On the television I saw Connally and Dole and Baker and Bush and John Sears talking and you were in L.A. at a movie because they told you to be. Think about it."

Reagan thought about it. A few months later, Sears was out. Now three months later, the California crowd is once again in power.

Lyn Nofziger sits in his Los Angeles office grinning two days before he officially came back on as communications director and resident expert on Ronald Reagan. Nofziger has known Regan since he helped Regan win his 1966 governor's campaign. He is a man quick to laugh, not only at other people's jokes, but his own; a hard-line conservative, he enjoys the press ,but has also earned a reputation as a tough infighter. When asked if Reagan has any "don't get mad, get even" tendencies, Nofziger shuffled and said, "I've tried to supply that over the years."

Nofziger joked about the possibility of Gerald Ford being offered the vice presidency when Reagan meets with him at his Rancho Mirage home today. "Gerald Ford could be the only man to have a chance to be president twice without being elected," Nofziger chuckled. He liked his own line so much he wrote it down for future refrence.

The Californians have an air of practiced congeniality but they are not loath to go off the record to cut up their old aversary Sears. The campaign has been functioning without a political director for some time now and some aides are frank to say that that area is a shambles. "We have field and state chairman who are sitting out there with no one telling them what to do. Nobody is in charge keeping these people on the track," one aide said.

A political director has yet to be named.

With all the exits and entrances here's how the men around Reagan now stack up:

At the top is New Yorker William Casey, former chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank and who was undersecretary of state for economic affairs. "He seems like a grandfather figure when you first meet him but he is one of the most deft and mean infighters," said one observer. A legendary story on the campaign trail is of Casey's first day on the job in Washington. A young staff worker, hoping to ingratiate himself with Casey, came up and introduced himself. Casey asked him his name and then looked down at a list where he happened to find it. He asked the young man to come into his office, then checked his name off on the list and said, "You're fired." It was Casy's job to cut back on the bloated campaign staff and he was in a hurry.

Ed Meese, the pink-cheeked and gentle-appearing, longtime and close friend of Regan's a San Diego lawyer, works on the same level with Casey. He is also know as a "tough bulldog" and the "chief engineer" in executing Sears' demise.

In addition to Nofziger, there is Californian Mike Deaver, a partner in a public relations firm that has managed Regan's affairs for years and who was fired when Sears was on top. He is a trusted confidant and is now happily back riding the campaign plane.

Other Californians include Richard Allen, a former senior staff member of Nixon's National Security Council who directs foreign affairs and defense policy, and Martin Anderson, economics professor at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who oversees the domestic issues area. Their pollster is Californian Richard Wirthlin.

There has been an attempt to add more Washington experience to the campaign with James Brady, a veteran press and public relations adviser who has worked for former budget director James T. Lynn, Delaware Sen. William Roth Jr. and John B. Connally during his unsuccessful try this year. Brady appears easygoing, gets along well with the press and coins some good one-liners that sometimes find a way into a Reagan speech. One of them this week was "The Jimmy Carter dollar has become the J.C. Penny."

There is no triumphal cockiness about Reagan's aides as they head for the general election, but all that laidback congeniality masks the skirmishes and infighting as the stakes escalate, say some who have watched them for a long time. "The jockeying is intense," says one observer.

Even some of the players admit that things will never be quite as easy nor will they be quite as trusting of one another as they were before the Sears' coups and countercoups.