The president-elect loves to tell the story about Nancy Reagan, Nancy Reynolds and an awful moment on the way to the opera house. It was 1968, the year California Gov. Ronald Reagan was sent to the Philippines as personal representative of Richard Nixon. The official motorcade was zooming through Manila, toward the evening's event when suddenly:

Bomb threat! Police swarmed around the limousines. The governor was in a front car with President Ferdinand Marcos. Nancy Reagan was riding with Reynolds, her friend and special assistant. The two women were talking. And talking.

The bomb never went off, but when they got to the opera house, Reagan came over to his wife and said, "Wasn't that awful?"

"What was awful?" asked his wife.

Says Reynolds, laughing, 12 years later: "We had never even noticed. We were just yakking away. In fact, when he told us about it, I think we sort of said, 'Oh?' and then just went right on talking."

So what were they talking about?

"God knows," she replies. "I hate to say it, but when you get two females together. . ."

They've been friends for 15 years. The quality of that friendship is best described by another story, and this one only Reynolds tells. The laugh lines around her eyes disappear.

"Once I was sure I was never going to recover from a broken heart," she says. "Nancy nursed me through that period with warmth and humor. You know -- 'How are you doing today?' and an arm around the shoulder. I never forgot that." Options and Obstacles

These days, you can find Nancy Reynolds behind hundreds of "While You Were Out" phone slips at the Reagan transition offices on M Street. "Guilt!" she cries, dealing out the slips on her desk like playing cards. "Guilt! How am I ever going to get to all these?"

Her present job, until she returns to Bendix Corp. as vice president and Washington representative at the end of January, is described simply as "helping out" with transition efforts for the East Wing. But in the process, she has emerged as a vital link between the western world she knew as Reagan's assistant press secretary and the Washington she knew first as senator's daughter and now, as lobbyist and insider.

"It's a perfect match," says Robert Gray, a friend and co-chair of the inaugural events. "She obviously has close, long and warm ties with the Reagans. And in the last four or five years, she's become a real part of the Washington establishment. . . Nancy helps to present the options to Mrs. Reagan, to give her the alternatives, and also to tell her if there's a barb or a negative she ought to watch out for."

Reynolds is 53, blond and remarkably similar to Nancy Reagan in dress and style. She is a smoother of problems that spring up in the transition period like blades of crabgrass on the White House lawn. She is a diplomat, a low-key strategist, a person who understands how good will over dinner, created by seating a Democratic senator next to a key transition member, can help ease a bill through the inevitable obstacle course.

Reynolds is also Nancy Reagan's ultimate defender, and squashes suggestions that the future first lady is cool and aloof. "Some people you feel just totally at home with right away, right?" she says. "Well, she's friendly and warm, but there's a great deal of reserve. It's not easy to know her well in the beginning. It takes time, but it's worth it. . . When she's your friend, believe me, you have a friend for life.

"She's come a long way since 15 years ago when she first came to the governor's mansion. To be just plucked out of the southern California neighborhood she lived in was kind of a trauma. It was hard for her. They were the objects of Molotov cocktails thrown at the residence, and hate mail. . .

"I remember the first couple of weeks that she was in Sacramento, after the governor had put out his budget, and she was flying back to Los Angeles. While she was sitting there, she heard two men behind her just tearing into Ronald Reagan, and I'm telling you, she let her seat back and she looked at one of them and said, 'That's my husband you're talking about, and what you're saying is absolutely not true!' And that poor guy slid back down in his seat, turned about nine shades of red, and was never heard from again.

"She just bleeds real good, as the governor says," continues Reynolds. "When she has a bad day, he can tell because he comes home and smells bath oil. She's been in the tub having imaginary conversations with people she feels have personally attacked him. That's what she does to blow off pressure."

Nowadays, Reynolds is careful to avoid sounding like she is running Mrs. Reagan's Washington, but it was Reynolds, along with adviser Mike Deaver, who suggested and arranged the successful party the Reagans held last month for local leaders at the F Street Club. It was Reynolds whom hostess and philanthropist Brooke Astor called, requesting advice on the guest list for the party she gave the Reagans in New York.

And it is Reynolds who is interviewing applicants for the jobs of press secretary and social secretary to the first lady. She did not interview Robin Orr, the press secretary who had never been to Washington and was relieved of her duties after 28 days. Deaver did, and it was Deaver who offered Orr another job during a period of embarrassing statements attributed to the first lady. But Reynolds, who has been a close friend of Deaver's for years, was a player in the hubbub and served as post facto interpreter.

Many assumed that Reynolds would take the press secretary job herself, perhaps because she is a woman who, with a lobbyist's viewpoint, rates "access and information" as essentials for success in Washington. But Reynolds says she's committed to Bendix and feels she can best serve the Reagans from the outside.

"As a friend of the court, if you will," she says. "Someone who will feel free to call them and say, 'You might want to look at something this way.' Or maybe I'll have a suggestion I'll want to pass on." East-West Hybrid

On this particular day in her M Street office, she wears a blue plaid blouse, a red knit vest, a red tie at her throat and black patent leather pumps. Her hair is short and fluffy. The look is one of female executive, although softened -- a hybrid of Washington and the West.

She was born in Pocatello, Idaho, but grew up in Harry Truman's Washington as the daughter of Sen. D. Worth Clark. He played poker with the president, housed his family for a time in the Shoreham Hotel, had Charles Lindbergh over for dinner and sent his daughter Nancy to a Catholic girls' school.

In the spring there was the Easter egg role on the White House lawn, and in the summer, horseback riding on the ranch back in Idaho. The trip, five exotic days by train, may as well have been a cruise up the Nile. They stayed over in Chicago and once, gloriously, had a berth next to William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. Reynolds' mother, as she remembers, was in something of a tizzy.

"I look back on it romantically," remembers Reynolds. "This town was much more southern then. It seems to me the sidewalks were rolled up sooner, but then of course, I was rolled up with them."

She graduated from Goucher College, began working part-time at WBAL radio in Baltimore, moved back to Idaho where she hosted a local afternoon version of the "Today" show, won some awards, then moved to San Francisco to eventually anchor the 6 o'clock news on KPIX. She met Ronald Reagan in 1965 when she was covering his first race for governor. When Reagan won, then-press secretary Lyn Nofziger asked her if she wanted to be his assistant. She said yes.

After two terms in Sacramento, Reynolds moved with the Reagans to Los Angeles and began doing Reagan's advance work on the lecture circuit. "I loved advancing," she says.

"It was fun, because there weren't too many women doing it," she continues. "The law enforcement people in Texas were always so wonderful to me, and they kept on saying [Texas accent here], 'Now don't worry your pretty little head and no way, honey, we're just going to get you anything you want.' And I'd say, 'No, this is the plan and this is how we do it.' But then they'd say, 'No, don't you worry, we're just going to buy you a wedge of pie and a king-sized Coke' -- for breakfast. And that's what I ate."

One time in Amarillo, she had to get a crowd of 2,000 to the airport to meet Reagan. "So when I was ordered -- or asked, I should say -- to get 2,000 that was it." Only problem was, a tornado blew into town. Reagan's plane was diverted to Dallas, but she didn't know that. So just in case, she made everybody stay. Under cars, in the shelter, wherever. "I was going to handcuff people to the fence," she says. "You know, 'Don't leave! Don't leave!'

"Meanwhile," she continues, "Mike Deaver and the governor were circling and they were all laughing. 'I'll bet Nancy Reynolds has got all these people down there,' they were saying. 'Can't you just see her face when we don't land and we're not there for two days?'"

When Reagan announced his candidacy for president in 1975, she traveled with Nancy Reagan until the Republican convention, and then joined Boise Cascade as its Washington lobbyist. In 1977, an old Idaho friend and Bendix chairman named Bill Agee called, asking her if she'd like to start a Washington office. She's been there ever since, tracking congressional bills that affect Bendix and working to enhance the reputation of a company that had almost no profile in Washington five years ago.

In between were two marriages and four sons -- three from the first and one from the second. Both marriages ended in divorce, although she says she has remained friends with both her ex-husbands.

"I feel I've been lucky to have been married to two men who love their children as much as they do, and who treated me so nicely," she says. "And who put up with me, too, you know. It must not have been easy for them, no matter how I felt." Now she lives in an Alexandria townhouse with her youngest, a 16-year-old.

"Have you got somebody you'd like to introduce me to?" she asks, playfully. "I would love to meet somebody. It seems to be the cry of every female in Washington . . . oh, I have friends. We all have friends."

Among them are the Deavers, the Ed Meeses, the William French Smiths. "Do you realize," says Reynolds, "that my whole extended family is coming to live in this town? The 10 years I was with the Reagans, my family were the staff people and the Reagans, as well as my own family. I feel like I've struck a gusher or something, because when I left California, the hard part was leaving all of them."

She is very tight with Nancy Reagan, and speaks of her with the reverence and superlatives reserved for a role model. "I've learned a lot from Nancy Reagan," says Reynolds, "just from being around her. I never cared about or noticed a lot of things until I met her. After all, I grew up in cowboy boots and jeans. Now I think I'm more conscious of how I look, and how I dress. My mother says so."

And like a high school chum, she is still capable of dissolving into giggles when she recalls moments the two women shared.One time they were both in a briefing in Sacramento, preparing for an upcoming trip to Vietnam that included a ride in an open helicopter up the Mekong Delta.

At this point, a young staffer asked, "Isn't that dangerous to be taking Nancy Reagan and Nancy Reynolds? What would happen if they were kidnaped and taken into Red China?"

"There was a dead silence," recalls Reynolds. "And then Mike Deaver, with the acerbic wit of his, quietly remarked, 'God save the communists.'" The Interpreter

And now that her friend is almost in Washington, Reynolds is ready to help her interpret the local pecularities.

"I think I understand how politicians and their families feel," she says, "because I've always been associated with the world of politics. But I'll tell you how it's changed. When my dad was a congressman, there was one telephone on his secretary's desk -- and he had to come out of his office to use it. And I grew up next to a little boy named Sammy Pardoe, and I come back, and he's got a big real estate company. The growth of the town is just phenomenal.

"It's twice as complicated now," she continues. "It used to be a congressional bill goes though one committee. Now it goes through seven. And because we've gone to a service economy, with great dependence on local, state and federal governments, almost everyone comes to Washington."

Including the Reagans. "I think they're going to have some fun here," she says. "God, I hope they're going to have some fun."