Braden: "I don't want to argue with you on how to build a bomb. . ."

Buchanan: "What I . . ."

Braden: "What I'm telling YOU is that Mr. Reagan boo-booed on foreign policy. It was a TERRIBLE press conference."

Buchanan: "I'm telling YOU you're boo-booing all over the lot!"

They wrestle on the radio. They tangle on TV. They go 15 rounds a day in a verbal sparring match without tossing in the ideological towel: the roundhouse right versus the left jab.

In this corner, wearing a Brooks Brothers pin-striped suit, white button-down shirt and a pudgy grin, is former Nixon speechwriter, 42-year-old syndicated columnist and conservative strategist Pat Buchanan. In the opposite corner, wearing rolled-up shirt sleeves and a rumpled trench coat and chain-smoking Marlboros, is 62-year-old syndicated columnist, author ("Eight Is Enough") and liberal apologist Tom Braden.

The battling B's, the Punch and Judy of Washington commentators, the Gore Vidal and William Buckley of politics, are making a killing these days (reliable estimates put their salaries into six figures) insulting each other in public.

People love it.

"It's done by skilled boxers rather than by two Pier 6 brawlers," says G. Gordon Liddy. "I love them both. And Mrs. Liddy listens to the two of them the way other housewives watch 'General Hospital.'"

"Its better than a soap opera," says the Rev. Robert Drinan, former representative from Massachusetts.

"People love to watch other people go at it," says conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick. "It does make for good entertainment."

People hate it.

"It's a form of ideological masturbation," says Vic Gold, former speechwriter for Spiro Agnew who now writes occasional speeches for Vice President George Bush. "You get your jerk liberal versus your jerk conservative. I go out of my way not to watch it."

"Massive verbal overlap," says Ralph Nader. "I think it gets a little hackneyed after awhile."

"They're like Mutt and Jeff or Laurel and Hardy," says liberal columnist Nicholas von Hoffman. "Every city has them."

Braden and Buchanan can be heard weekdays from 4 to 7 on WRC radio. The latest ratings put them third in a field of 35, which is unusual since call-in shows have traditionally bombed during the "drive time" slot. According to a recent Special Media-Stat Congressional Radio survey, Braden and Buchanan -- who refer to Margaret Thatcher as "Maggie," President Ronald Reagan as "Dutch" and Richard Nixon as "The Old Man" -- are the single most popular Washington radio program with members of Congress, 51 percent of whom regularly tune it.

They can be seen Thursday nights at 11:30 on WDVM's "After Hours" with anchor Gordon Peterson.Despite strong competition ("The Odd Couple," Johnny Carson and "ABC News Nightline"), Braden and Buchanan are holding their own: During the last rating period, they nearly tied with "Nightline." They do slightly better than the normal offering at that time ("CBS Late Movie") and while the ratings for WDVM's other political commentary show, "Agronsky & Co.," are slightly down since last November, the ratings for "After Hours" are slightly up.

Kilpatrick, a regular on "Agronsky," says he wishes their show was more like Braden and Buchanan's. "It's too genteel. I restrain myself," he says. Kilpatrick, former "Point-Counterpoint" comentator on "60 Minutes" (first with von Hoffman, then with Shana Alexander), says, "I love the hurly-burly."

Martin Agronsky has other ideas. "This confrontational thing appears to be in fashion right now," he grouses. "Big deal."

"People are drawn to conflict because that's part of our being. It's the aggressiveness in us," says Ed Pfeiffer, vice president and general manager of WDVM. "An awful lot of people in our society have very strong opinions about a variety of issues. Here are two guys who really go at it. I think people enjoy that."

Especially when the hostility is genuine.

Although Gordon Peterson maintains that Braden and Buchanan have "a grudging respect for one another," the two columnists are not friends. In a town where most political adversaries drop their guard after 6 p.m., these two commentators do not. Although they have some friends in common, they do not socialize with each other. In fact, they barely speak to one another when not on the air.

One time they didn't speak to each other at all. "It was a few years ago on the radio show," says Braden. "Pat got upset about something and yelled at me to shut up. When he's losing an argument he tends to go right back to the sandbox. Well, I said I will shut up and I did, for two solid hours."

But the name-calling is relatively tame. Buchanan is fond of calling Braden a "pointy-headed liberal" and member of "the Volvo, white wine and cheese set." "He's never called me a pinko," says Braden, who retaliates by calling Buchanan an "ideological bedfellow of George Wallace" and "a narrow-minded New Rightist."

On a recent "After Hours," the show's guest, former senator Gaylord Nelson, was talking about conservation. Buchanan accused Braden of knowing nothing about the subject. Braden shot back, "Why don't you shut up and let somebody talk who does."

"We're relatively polite to one another," says Braden. "I don't really hate Buchanan, but I certainly hate what he stands for."

The two men stand for extremes. Even their voices are at the opposite end of the scale: Buchanan's is high and whiny, with a nasal twang. Braden sounds like he chews sandpaper for breakfast. Whether the topic is abortion, capital punishment, the federal budget or the baseball strike, they can argue passionately with or without a constituency to back them up. You don't have to agree with one to disagree with the other. Listening to Braden and Buchanan is like stumbling into a Washington cocktail party. Put up your political dukes.

"They're both very combative personalities," says Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern's former campaign director who now heads National Public Radio. "They're punching each other in the nose verbally."

"We all like that," says Mankiewicz. "After all, they don't claim it's a serious intellectual discussion of the issues. I don't think it's meant to be substantive." Heckling the Guest

A recent guest on "After Hours" was former senator George McGovern. He came on the set, rolled up his shirt sleeves and sat down. Before he knew it, Pat Buchanan began a rapid-fire round of taunts and questions. Moderator Gordon Peterson, reminded of McGovern's well-publicized remark of a heckler during the 1972 presidential campaign, turned to the harried guest and said, with the cameras rolling, "If you want to tell him [Buchanan] to kiss your a--, go right ahead."

McGovern blanched. "Why didn't somebody warn me?" he muttered during the next break. The Walkout

On a warm Thursday afternoon recently, Pat Buchanan strides out of the NBC headquarters in Northwest Washington toward his white Cadillac. His wife Shelley is waiting for him behind the wheel.He refused to be interviewed for this story. In fact, he walked out of the station in protest 25 minutes before the radio show was to start because this reporter showed up.

"He's being petulant. He's incorrigible," fumed Andrew Bergstein, WRC manager of advertising and promotion. "Isn't it crazy?"

According to two WRC sources, Buchanan told Braden he would "lose face" with his former mentor Richard Nixon ("The Old Man"), if he consented to a Washington Post interview.

Buchanan, briefcase in hand, is about to climb into the Cadillac. He says it's "nothing personal." His dimple-chinned jaw is rigid, his brown eyes flash angrily.

"Talk with Mr. Braden," he says. "He's a very interesting man."

("Buchanan is kind of moody," says Ralph Nader. "I think he's still getting over Watergate.")

To fill in for Buchanan (who was introduced to a 1979 Young Republican dinner as a "nationally syndicated communist") the show's producer has hastily called in John McLaughlin, former Jesuit priest and Nixon adviser. McLaughlin rushes in the door, fumbling with his necktie.

"I can't understand it," says McLaughlin. "This is really baffling."

The two men take their places in the small, glassed-in booth. Inside the control room, producer Kathy Paterno gives the sign. "Newstalk 98" is on the air. Tom Braden, shirt sleeves rolled up and puffing a pipe, leans into the microphone. His voice sounds like a cement mixer stuck in reverse.

"This is Tom Braden. Pat Buchanan has the day off."

(Buchanan has, in fact, gone off to a movie in a huff. Later that week, Braden will joke about taking off for the movies himself.)

The topic is the federal brain drain. McLaughlin argues the conservative side vehemently. He is getting red in the face. The phones start ringing. They want to know where Pat Buchanan is. "Some guy just called in and said McLaughlin's a turkey deluxe," says Paterno.

Suddenly, Braden leans over and punches McLaughlin on the arm.

"HE HIT HIM," says engineer Lisa Righter.

Paterno slumps into a chair. "I can't believe it," she says. "It's just not like this when Pat's here." Debate Goes On

Tom Braden looks tired. The nooks and crannies of his ruggedly tanned face are deepening into gullies. He walks out of the station building and climbs into his beat-up Mustang. "This is the hardest job I've ever had," he sighs, lighting up another Marlboro.

He drives to his Chevy Chase home, a rambling, suburban nest inhabited by as many domestic animals as humans. He has just enough time to pour a drink, change into a suit and tie and head over to the WDVM television studio for the 8:30 taping of "After Hours." The show used to be live, he says, but the late hour made it difficult sometimes to get provocative guests. Most provocative people in Washington apparently get up early.

"We stopped taking phone calls, too," he says. "They were too dumb."

Guests on the year-old talk show have included a cross section of Washington insiders: Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), James Schlesinger, Jody Powell, British Ambassador Sir Nicholas Henderson, Joseph Califano, Ralph Nader, Pearl Bailey, Robert Drinan, Donald Rumsfeld, Morris Udall and Pat Harris.

The show is taped in the WDVM newsroom. The format is simple: Braden and Buchanan go at each other for the first five minutes or so, with Gordon Peterson acting as referee. (After joking on the air that he was going to get a whistle, Peterson received one in the mail from a football coach.)

Then the guest is introduced. Sometimes Braden and Buchanan ignore the guest, and keep on sparring. Sometimes the guest gets caught in the cross fire. No one has ever refused to be on the show, but Malcom Toon, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, threatened to walk out in midshow after discovering that G. Gordon Liddy was sharing the bill. Peterson says they hustled Liddy out of the newsroom and Toon calmed down.

Braden and Buchanan first tangled in 1973 after Braden wrote a column critical of Nixon's special assistant.Buchanan wrote a scathing letter to the editor of the newspaper. Their pictures appeared side by side, with Braden's response. A morning talk show in New York picked up on the heated exchange and asked the two men to debate on the air.

Braden refused.

"I said 'No, I will not confront Pat Buchanan. It wouldn't be good TV because I couldn't stand the guy.'"

In 1977, Frank Mankiewicz, who has been doing a three-minute nationally syndicated WRC radio spot called "Confrontation" opposite Buchanan, was tapped for the National Public Radio job. He asked Braden if he would be interested in taking over his part of the show.

Braden says now he decided to try out because, "Frankly, I thought Frank was getting the hell beaten out of him [by Buchanan]. He's funny, he's quick, but he was getting beaten. So I got my loins girded, and said I wanted the job."

It was a natural.

Here was Buchanan, native Washingtonian, Irish Catholic, graduate of Gonzaga High School and Georgetown University, severe critic of the press, speechwriter for Spiro Agnew and Nixon, conservative standard-bearer, tackling Braden, a WASP, a graduate of Dartmouth, former OSS operative, reporter, professor, assistant to CIA director Allen Dulles and former newspaper publisher.

"I think I realized I was not dealing with a stereotype," says Braden. "He [Buchanan] has a fairly broad intellect despite the narrowness of his mind."

As well as his temper. In 1959, as a senior at Georgetown, Buchanan was charged with assault on two policemen. According to newspaper accounts, he punched two officers who stopped him for a traffic violation after a two-block chase. Shortly after that, Buchanan pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was expelled from Georgetown for one year.

He returned to school and graduated with honors. He then went to Columbia Journalism School at age 23, became the youngest editorial writer in the nation, penning opinions for The St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Buchanan met Richard Nixon and followed the president to Washington, where he became a trusted friend and adviser, an outspoken media critic, and finally, a steadfast defender of the Nixon White House during Watergate. In between, he took Evelyn Wood's speed reading course and boasted he could read a book in two hours. He went on the grapefruit diet with William Safire and lost 15 pounds. And one night in 1969, he went to a Washington restaurant with a group of friends after one of Nixon's press conferences. In the middle of dinner, Buchanan was summoned to the phone. It was Nixon, asking Buchanan, "How'd I do?"

Nixon still calls Buchanan, who is known for his sharp wit. On his way to The Hague for a youth conference two months before Nixon resigned, Buchanan told a reporter, "I'm going over to check their extradition laws."

Both men are listed in the social register, Washington's Green Book. Buchanan lives in suburban Virginia, Braden in suburban Maryland. Buchanan writes three columns a week, and is syndicated in 75 newspapers. Braden writes two columns a week, and appears in 69 newspapers. Buchanan, married to former Nixon secretary Shelley Scarney, has no children. Braden, married to Joan Braden, well-known Washington hostess and former aide to Nelson Rockefeller, has eight, five of them currently in college.

According to Braden, Shelley Buchanan takes an active part in her husband's work, researching facts, underlining books. "Buchanan doesn't read the way you or I do," Braden says. "I've seen books of his underlined in red. He reads to support his positions. I think I'm becoming the mirror image of him. I don't read novels anymore. I don't have time. I have to read all these FACTS. Pat's never read a novel in his life!"

Shelley Buchanan accompanies her husband to the radio station, and sits in WDVM's "Green Room" during the taping of "After Hours." Joan Braden is rarely seen waiting in "The Green Room."

"He's very uptight. I'm much more relaxed," says Braden, who describes himself as a liberal in the traditional sense of the word. "A seeker of truth. I think that's what it means."

Buchanan, on the other hand, he says, "is New Right. He's angry. Radical. It's an attempt to go back to 'Every Man for himself.' Pat's a scrapper."

Braden says Buchanan is a human encyclopedia.

"I once accused him of being 'Deep Throat'," says Braden. "Instead of laughing it off, he gave me dates and times of his whereabouts to prove he couldn't possibly be 'Deep Throat.'"

Does Buchanan take himself too seriously?

Braden chuckles. "He's very funny when he's drunk." Knee-Jerk Notions

Buchanan: "Now set aside your natural somewhat knee-jerk tendency, Tom, to BLAME Mr. Reagan for upsetting our sensitive Soviet friends and ask YOURSELF some direct questions. . ."

Braden: "I don't think our president understands the difference between a foreign policy and a weapons policy. And I don't think he understands the difference between announcing a foreign policy and shooting off at the MOUTH, and you know Pat, I don't think YOU do either." Pacing and Pummeling

Jerry Grossman, "After Hours" producer, stands in the WDVM control room watching the monitors. Earlier that day, Grossman was pacing the newsroom in a panic after he learned that Buchanan had walked off the radio show. Buchanan told him he would do "After Hours" on two conditions: that this reporter remain in the control booth on a separate floor from the newsroom set, and that Buchanan would not encounter her going in or coming out of the building.

"I'm sorry," Grossman says, still frazzled. "I have to respect his wishes."

The guests that night are Patricia Derian, former assistant secretary of state for human rights and wife of former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III, and Kenneth Wollack of the Middle East Policy Survey.

The familiar sound of a teletype machine signals the show's opening segment. Gordon Peterson introduces Wollack. For the next 10 minutes, the mild mannered guest gets pummeled from both sides.

After one particular exchange, the engineer in the control booth erupts: "Let 'em answer the question, dammit."

Wollack walks off the set, slightly dazed. Braden puts his arm around him. "We were rough on you," he says. "But you handled it well."

The next day, Wollack was still in shock. "I felt like I was in a barroom brawl," he says. "The only thing missing was the beer bottle over my head."

They told him to act natural. "HAH! It's very difficult to be casual when I thought I was watching a Ping-Pong match."

Wollack says he got a phone call from a viewer who gave him a piece of advice. "When Tom Braden disagrees with you, you know you're right. And when Buchanan agrees with you, you know you should reevaluate your position."

"There is something to be said about it," says Patricia Derian, on her way to Maine where she and Hodding Carter will spend the summer writing books. "I can't tell you the number of people who came up to me the next day and said, 'I was half asleep and that really woke me up!'" The Anchor as Spectator

Gordon Peterson is sipping white wine at a restaurant near WDVM. He says he loves Braden and Buchanan. He loves "After Hours." He says he was looking for a late-night show for a long time ("I wanted to call it 'Up Your Block'"), so when Ed Pfeiffer suggested the Battling B's after listening to their radio show, Peterson jumped at the chance.

"I don't care about the ratings," he says. "I know people watch it."

Indeed, many guests say they receive enormous reaction to their appearances. "I was amazed by the number of people, from my barber to my colleagues, who said, 'Hey, I saw you on that Channel 9 thing,' says Cable News Network correspondent Daniel Schorr. "My unscientific polls indicate it must have a pretty good audience. I was rather surprised, given the competition."

The viewers often complain, however, that the two men are bullies. The most frequent complaint, Peterson says, is that "Buchanan is rude, and why can't I control them?"

Peterson guffaws at the prospect of harnessing all that hostility.

"Look, I don't even like to use the whistle. I'm only going to interfere when I see ad hominem attacks. I view myself as a spectator."

He says the relationship between Braden and Buchanan is almost like father and son. He also says Buchanan has a great sense of humor. "It's pixieish." Peterson scrunches up his nose and purses his lips in an imitation of Buchanan. "He won't like this, but it's true. He's pixieish."

Peterson says his favorite "After Hours" guest to date was the Rev. Robert Drinan, who now teaches at Georgetown Law School. "It was pretty funny," says Peterson. "Buchanan was really going at it and Drinan was perfect.He got mad and said to Pat, 'Don't you ever let anyone finish a statement?' Buchanan shot back, 'You just did. Now about . . .'"

Reaction to the year-old show has been so favorable that WDVM is already talking about national syndication.

But Tom Braden doesn't think their particular brand of political commentary will captivate the heartland. Says the gravel-voiced liberal, "It's too goddam sophisticated."