She tells the story of a scary flight on a small plane from Sacramento to Los Angeles. When one of her companions said she was afraid they weren't going to make it, Maureen Reagan burst out laughing. "Don't worry," she reassured her, "I'm not going to go down just as somebody's kid."

Maureen Reagan is an actress whose real-life roles have included typist, envelope stuffer, beauty contestant, card-carrying feminist, talk-show host, trade consultant, magazine editor, candidate for public office and cheerleader. Right now, at age 43, she's cheerleading again. There are those in the Republican Party who think that this role may have challenged her acting talent the most.

Her cheers today sound different, though no less political. It was she, for instance, who first publicly raised the "makeup issue" after the initial televised debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. "I think they both looked tired at the end," she told reporters at a White House luncheon two days after the debate. "Mondale's makeup was beginning to drip."

As Ronald Reagan's personal point woman trying to close the gender gap, she no longer insists upon a constitutional amendment to ensure equal rights for women. And she has soft-pedaled her position on abortion from the pro-choice stance that won her the support of feminists in her unsuccessful try for the California GOP nomination in the 1982 U. S. Senate race. to a tight-lipped "I never discuss abortion," she says now.

She first aligned herself with the Republicans as a restless 9-year-old watching the 1952 conventions -- "I don't know if she was destined for politics," says her brother Michael, "but she was in it before Dad was." But her futile pitch for ERA in this year's GOP platform merely reinforced what some party members always suspected: that she was about as close to a flaming liberal as you could find in the Republican party.

Moderate Republicans see her in a no-win situation, an outsider inside a new Republican party that seems uncomfortable with strong, assertive women. They say that for all her hand-holding of Republican women at campaign stops around the country, she will not be able to feminize the party's federation of women -- RNC chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. calls them "the backbone of the party" -- until the hierarchy of the Republican party tells those women they can be.

"Her effectiveness," says Mary Stanley, Republican chair of the National Women's Political Caucus and a Ronald Reagan supporter for almost 20 years until he abandoned many of the things she always believed he stood for, "is not in getting votes for Reagan-Bush but in precluding a lot of appointed and elected Republican women from creating more of an uproar."

Oscar is little, white and stuffed, and pretends to be a puma. He joined the campaign in Louisville, rounding out "Radiant's" (the Secret Service code name for Maureen Reagan) barnstorming entourage that has covered 150,000 air miles and all 50 states since January. Besides the omnipresent Secret Service agents, there has been South Carolinian Mary Jo Jameson, who as Maureen Reagan's press secretary, executive assistant, companion and confidant, explains away Oscar as "battle fatigue."

On a campaign swing to upper New York state, Jameson and the agents focus on Maureen Reagan, and Maureen Reagan playfully focuses on Oscar, carrying him in a tote bag, arranging him on the table in her hotel suite or perching him on the back of her seat aboard airplanes. En route to a television interview in Buffalo, the roadshow makes a quick stop so Maureen can replace lost lipstick. She can't resist buying a "present" (toy sunglasses) for Oscar.

She remembers a recent weekend at Camp David when she and Oscar flew with the president aboard his helicopter, Marine One. The trip earned Oscar a Marine One certificate when -- and here she pretends to pout -- it had taken her six months to get one. That day, instead of his usual spot on her own seat-back, she put Oscar on the president's.

"The president said, 'I can't read with you looking over my shoulder,' " she giggles, "so Oscar rode in the president's lap."

From such jokes about Oscar to their discussions on political tactics, it's the "little things" Ronald Reagan does that let his daughter know he's thinking of her.

Like the time her dog died and Maureen had to have her cremated because she couldn't bury her right away at Rancho del Cielo, the Reagans' California ranch. Her first chance came that Thanksgiving but when she got there it was raining so hard that she left the box with the president to bury. Later, in Washington, she says the president told her that Barnae had been safely interred beneath a headstone on Mount Rhino, the happy hunting ground for Reagan family pets.

"It was kind of funny," Maureen says now, "because she wasn't very big anyway, but the box had been much smaller and the first thing he said when I walked in was, 'I think I dug too big a hole.' "

And then there's the way the president takes her into his confidence. " 'Come in, come in,' " she says he whispered one night at the White House when he was standing in his study and saw her in the hall. " 'I don't want anybody to hear this . . .' "

On the subject of Ronald Reagan's closeness with his family, her eyes glaze over and her smile fades. She says Ronald Reagan's view of the family is that he cares about them all, though he doesn't impose himself on them "to the point where you want to say 'Impose yourself!' "

Of all Ronald Reagan's children, only his firstborn during his marriage to Jane Wyman -- Maureen -- has set her personal life aside to go on the hustings for him. Michael Reagan cracks: "I thought Maureen was the one running for president." But longtime political observers see her devotion as one-sided. "If her father would do for her one-third of what she has done for him," laments one of her admirers who still hasn't forgiven the president for not supporting Maureen in her senatorial bid.

Maureen Reagan's explanation for her siblings' campaign inactivity is that "Patti doesn't like politics, never has. Ron says if it's necessary he'd be willing to help. Michael's feeling is that if it isn't necessary then it's not fair to ask him to do it. Anyway, all of them have kind of earned their stripes."

At another point she laughs about it: "If one of the four of us was at an age in life when they didn't need to take four to eight years out, it's me. The rest of them have more time."

Maureen and California communications executive Dennis Revell, 11 years her junior, whom she married in 1981, take turns commuting on weekends between Los Angeles, where she lives, and Sacramento, where he lives. "We spent five weeks together and our marriage survived, so we know we can live in the same place together, a least for five weeks," she laughs.

"Maybe it will stay together," jokes Michael Reagan of his sister's third marriage (her first was to a D.C. policeman shortly after she quit Marymount College in Arlington, her second to a Marine officer). "Maybe that's the secret: never see your spouse."

Intensely loyal to her mother, actress Jane Wyman, Maureen delights in updating Reagan Republicans about her. "My mother is fine," she tells a Buffalo crowd, referring to a recent episode of the television series, "Falcon Crest," in which Wyman played the lead. "I think she survived the plane crash."

Strong-willed and extroverted, she can also be hot-tempered and mercurial, her associates say. She resembles her stepmother, with whom her relations have been stormy at times, in at least one respect: she, too, is protective of Ronald Reagan.

"We have a good relationship," says Nancy Reagan of Maureen, fully aware of the constant scrutiny they are under in and out of the White House. "Why doesn't anyone want to believe that?"

Certainly theirs is a united front now, and Maureen finds herself in the role of defending the first lady.

"First of all," she begins, "Nancy Reagan hasn't changed in four years. Nancy Reagan is still the same person that she was. If what's reported about her has changed, it means that somebody has found out something they weren't looking for. Yes, Nancy Reagan is a very well-dressed woman -- there's nothing wrong with that.

"There were a lot of other things being said about her," she continues. "We thought it was wonderful when Jackie Kennedy redecorated the White House. Nancy Reagan was drawn and quartered for doing exactly the same thing. And I resented that. I still resent that."

There is a long pause as she considers a question about whether the criticism brought the two of them together.

"I think shared experiences have a great deal to do with it. I also think it's the fact that we're talking about a relationship that goes back 34 years. We've had a lot of relationships in 34 years, as I have had with my father, my mother and all of them who came after. But I don't think we're any different from any other group of people in similar circumstances."

It is a withdrawn and cool defender now saying: "I don't think it's really anybody's business how we have all arrived at where we are today. The fact of the matter is we are a family. Whether we all like each other every day or not is irrelevant."

Then there is a sudden thaw.

"Actually," says Maureen, an almost pleading note in her voice, "we're really very nice people."

"I don't think it makes that much difference," Maureen Reagan says stiffly of Geraldine Ferraro's candidacy. "Every woman who runs for elective office makes progress for other women."

And at another point, on whether Ferraro is a qualified candidate: "Sure. She's 35 years old, she's lived in the U.S. for 16 years and she was born here."

"Politically, I'm real surprised," Maureen says. "Win, lose or draw, she leaves the Congress in January. Everybody had to know there would be a complaint filed with the Ethics Committee, and I'm just kind of surprised she didn't resign from the House, then she wouldn't have had that problem.

"You're talking to someone who for years has taken the position that people who aspire to another office should ought to have to resign from the office they hold because it is not fair to campaign at taxpayer expense."

It is one of several Maureenisms on which she likes to expound. "You can't joke about something if she's stuck on a subject," says Michael Reagan. "When she says it's law, it's law."

Another is that Maureen thinks the Democrats "skipped a step in the political process" by nominating Ferraro. "Ninety-nine percent of men in modern times -- since World War II -- who have been elected as vice president have had a national constituency either as head of the party or as having been a presidential candidate or something that has put them out over a period of time of being judged on regional and national concerns. The only one who was not was Spiro Agnew, and we all know what happened to him.

"Being a member of Congress gives you a tremendous amount of attention in your own district, but outside of Washington, it's amazing how little anybody hears," she says.

She labels the National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus, both of which have endorsed the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, as partisan rather than feminist organizations.

"If feminism didn't go ahead of partisanship when our Republican women Margaret Heckler, Millicent Fenwick and Mary Estelle Buchanan were running in 1982 it sure ain't going to go ahead of partisanship when Geraldine Ferraro is running," she tells her Buffalo audience.

Says Kathy Wilson of the National Women's Political Caucus, which like NOW supported Maureen's bid for the Senate: "All the people she is working so hard for now turned their back on her in 1982, including her father. It must have been a stinging blow. I'm sure it hurt her very much."

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Like her father, she is at her best in front of an audience -- "You gotta remember," she says, "I was an actress, too."

It wasn't a question of trying to copy her father's style, which she first analyzed in a high school speech class. "The thing I liked was that he utilized his own experiences.

Michael Reagan says Maureen has her own style. "She comes at you. Dad does, too, but in a charismatic way. Fifty-five minutes of listening to Dad is easy. When Maureen gets done talking you feel like you've been lectured and that you can go to your room now and get a spanking."

Gregarious, likable and not above poking fun at herself, including her weight -- "I have only one goal in life, I want to live to at least 102 and at 101 I'm going to stop dieting" -- she has a grasp of issues and an ability to motivate her audience. "You have to make them feel they can do something," she says.

On the road she is the Reagan people feel they know and who knows them. "She's the woman's voice of America in the ear of her father," Mary Rita Miller, vice chair of the Republican women's federation in Buffalo, tells a rally.

"The first time I met her father I had 15 seconds," Connie Cook, GOP candidate for the House in New York's 28th Congressional District, tells an audience in Binghamton, N.Y. "I took four of them to tell him all about ERA -- I said, 'Just listen to Maureen.' "

The media Maureen Reagan encounters have questions, however, and she can dodge them as artfully as any elected politician. Asked in Buffalo if she has changed her position on issues since she tried for the GOP Senate nomination, she is flip. "I might have. It's 2 1/2 years later -- politics is a very fluid pursuit."

Well, persists her interrogator, what was her position on abortion?

"I don't remember," she snaps.

She deliberately lies to one interviewer who tries to verify her age.

"Forty," says Maureen Reagan, who was born Jan. 4, 1941.

Later, riding to the airport, she tosses it off with a joke. "I give everybody an exclusive. Last week I was 37. It's much nicer than saying 'It's none of your business.' "

Denying that she has modified her position for the sake of harmony with the president and the party, she says her job is to be as persuasive as she can on things she cares about and that the things she cares about right now are a strong economy and a strong foreign policy.

"ERA is not a philosophy," she tells one crowd of Republican women, "it's a tool. I support a constitutional amendment. The president supports statutory reform. I also support statutory reform," she says.

A longtime observer of the political arena, she says the first thing she learned about Washington was how to make the system work for her. Admittedly, it works better if you have friends in high places, so in her case by going first to the president and the first lady -- they are "Dad" and "Mom" in private but "the president" and "Mrs. Reagan" in public -- she is able to tell them what she has in mind, get their approval and proceed from there.

That's pretty much the way she set about developing a strategy to close the gender gap for her father in June 1983. She had been traveling in the East when she got a call to stop in Washington on her way back to California.

At the White House, she found the president becoming "very frustrated . . . He felt he was doing some very good things, that the administration was doing good things, that there were women coming into jobs that women had not held before but that somehow all we were hearing was negative," she remembers.

"I said, 'I think there are a lot of things that can be done and one of them is we need to be more in touch with all kinds of women. But it's a political problem, not a governmental problem.' "

She came up with the idea of inviting incumbent Republican women officeholders and Republican challengers to Washington to be briefed first by Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf and presidential assistant for political affairs Ed Rollins and then by the Cabinet.

The pie ce de re'sistance, though, was that the Cabinet briefings were set at the White House followed by luncheons hosted by the president. "Let's face it," says Mary Stanley, "it's very impressive to have lunch at the White House. But the whole thing was really gobbledygook."

Presidential assistant Margaret Tutwiler, with whom Maureen has worked closely in the past year, gives her credit for several innovative political activities at the White House. "Those luncheons never would have happened without Maureen, nor would Women's Equality Day," says Tutwiler.

Fahrenkopf circumnavigates conclusions when talking about Maureen Reagan, whom he has known since they were Young Republicans together. "It's hard to say if the level of support for the president has gone up among women because of Maureen alone."

"Women are concerned about whether or not anybody is concerned about what concerns women," Maureen Reagan tells the groups of women she meets.

And she says she can track the moment when perceptions started to change about the president's positions on women because every question asked her in interviews has been painstakingly listed by Jameson. It's as good a barometer as any of what people are thinking locally, says Maureen.

She remembers that "suddenly about four months ago, the question everywhere wasn't 'Why doesn't the president like women' but 'How do you suppose this perception got out there?' "

When it happened twice in one day in Ohio, Maureen Reagan could begin to refine what may have become one of her best lines on the campaign trail.

"If Ronald Reagan succeeds, we get some of the credit and if Ronald Reagan fails we get some of the blame," she says. "And I'll take my share of the credit because I've been a Republican longer than Ronald Reagan."

There is a story among Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign operatives that shows Maureen Reagan, "somebody's kid," at work:

After a speech in Iowa, Maureen answered a question. In the back of the hall was the Reagan operative accompanying her who frantically waved his arms to signal her that it wasn't the right answer.

"Where'd you get that answer?" the operative later asked her.

"I believe I discussed it with my father when he was governor of California," she replied with considerable coolness.

"That's not what he believes," the operative told her.

"Well," said Maureen, "he does in this town."