The way one of them told it last night, they were just a couple of cowboys riding to the rescue.

"You and I, Mr. President, have in us something like a cowboy spirit," Ecuador's President Leon Febres-Cordero told President Reagan at a White House dinner. "And with that spirit, we are trying to improve the lot of our countrymen."

The night seemed ripe for reminiscing as Febres-Cordero told how as a student at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey years ago he had watched movies and discovered an "extremely likable star called Ronald Reagan.

"I must confess," the Ecuadoran leader continued, "I'm still an addict of westerns, but now I view Mr. Reagan as the actor of a more historical role."

Anyone else but Reagan might have called it a state dinner for Febres-Cordero and his wife Eugenia. But as Reagan told the audience after opera star Jessye Norman performed in the East Room, "It's also the 32nd wedding anniversary of our guests of honor."

And so it went for the second time yesterday as Reagan rolled out the red carpet for one of his favorite Latin American leaders.

If the weather was chilly, the welcome wasn't. Reagan had a firm handshake for Febres-Cordero, a conservative whose ideas aren't unlike his own. Nancy Reagan had a warm embrace and a kiss for Eugenia Febres-Cordero, who shares her concerns about drug abuse among the young.

A military honor guard lined the driveway for the Febres-Cordero arrival at the North Portico, but last night's biting night air produced no casualties. When the Ecuadoran leader was welcomed by Reagan in the morning on the South Lawn, three members of the Marine Band fainted because of the 22-degree cold.

The Reagans were coatless as they awaited their guests. And the cold obviously got to Mrs. Reagan, wearing a form-fitting green gown that flared at the hem. Cordero wore a heavy topcoat and his wife a hand-embroidered flowing cape, and after pausing for photographers, Mrs. Reagan cut things short, saying, "That's all. It's cold."

Politics had reared its ugly head briefly a few minutes earlier when reporters managed to throw out a question to Reagan about whether he plans to send aid to the contras. "I can't answer a question like that now," the president shot back.

In his after-dinner toast, Reagan said of Central America, "Those who would repress their own people and export subversion to their neighbors should not misunderstand the depth of our commitment and steadfastness."

When a reporter remarked later that his toast had sounded as if he was going to ask for military aid, Reagan said, "No comment."

That subject seemed far from anyone's mind as the dinner guests were arriving. Several of them were repeat visitors, including socialite Oatsie Charles, CBS' Bob Schieffer, former Reagan aide Nancy Clark Reynolds, Clare Boothe Luce, former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, who walked in with Vogue magazine's Shirley Lord.

Others who were making their first visit included jockey Angel Cordero, who gave a nod to the guest of honor and speculated that he had been invited because "my last name is the same as the president." Walter Shorenstein, the Democrats' Mr. Moneybags at the San Francisco convention, shrugged off queries about why he was there. "Ask them," he said. "Dallas" actress Susan Howard had no doubt about why she was invited: She supported Reagan's reelection campaign.

Howard said she had just finished writing a script for an upcoming "Dallas" episode and added that she plans to get into directing next year. When asked if she'd still be acting in the hit series then, she said, "We'll see."

And starry-eyed Barbara Mandrell said she was "just overwhelmed with joy . . . I'm very patriotic." Tall, tan and totally ready for the cameras, David Hasselhoff, star of NBC's "Knight Rider," was the first through the door. He came with his father Joseph, explaining that his wife was working on the CBS soap opera "Capitol."

"It's about this place," he said, "and they wouldn't let her out. So she's paying the rent and we're eating at the White House."

And where was KITT, his sidekick car in the show? "KITT's outside. They wouldn't let him in -- security problems, you know."

Golfer Nancy Lopez came in with her husband, baseball player Ray Knight.

Their table talk topics for the president?

"Whatever he wants to talk about," said Lopez. "Maybe ask him how his golf game's going," said Knight.

After a dinner of salmon and sole mousse, medallions of veal and caramel ice cream and poached apples, everybody regrouped in the Blue Room with their guests. Mandrell told Reagan she prayed for him and Mrs. Reagan, and said he told her that after her car accident they had prayed for her.

"It's a really important night for me or I wouldn't be here and leave my 4-month-old son Nathaniel at home for the first time," she said.

Someone asked Reagan if he was going to see Halley's Comet.

"If it's a choice between sleeping or seeing it," he said, "I'll wait and see it on television."

Asked if he liked sleep that much, he said, "Yes."

He seemed less interested in discussing the report by the President's Commission of Organized Crime, which was presented to him yesterday. Critical of Reagan administration "contacts" with Teamsters President Jackie Presser, the report says such ties could "lead to an erosion of public confidence" in the government's fight against labor racketeering.

Reagan said he had only "glanced" at it and that "they will be coming in with a complete report shortly. Something that we really understand is that we have a problem, trying to deal with it."

"Was Jackie Presser's role mentioned in the report?" a reporter asked.

"No, and, well, as I say, I haven't read the report," Reagan said, "but also the commission has mandated silence on the interim report until the final report comes in."

"Don't you think the Teamsters have been in a lot of trouble through the years?" a reporter asked.

"As I say," Reagan continued, "I haven't read it."

At that point, a presidential aide moved in, cutting off any further discussion with "he's got some guests." The president quickly turned away.

At a luncheon earlier in the day for the Ecuadoran president, the dessert was called "chocolate surprise," but the real surprise came shortly after, when Secretary George Shultz invited Eugenia Febres-Cordero to join him at the rostrum.

"Maybe you'd like to come over and say something nice about your wife," Shultz then told her husband.

The Ecuadoran leader never did say anything about his wife at Shultz's luncheon for him, whether due to speechlessness over the award for her efforts to reduce the mortality rate among Ecuador's children, or to being distracted by the New York Yankees baseball jacket the secretary gave him as a consolation prize.

What was clear was that Shultz's recognition of a foreign leader's wife is not an everyday occurrence. Citing Mrs. Febres-Cordero's "truly remarkable job . . . in leading a program for immunization of children and undoubtedly saving countless hundreds of thousands of lives," Shultz said it was "no accident" that James Grant, the head of UNICEF, was among the nearly 200 guests.

Likening the Febres-Corderos to the Reagans, Shultz noted that both couples work as a "team." "President Reagan gives us great leadership and so does Nancy. Nancy in particular has given her heart and her energies combating the drug problem . . . the same is true in Ecuador, where there is a team."

The award, bestowed by the Agency for International Development -- whose administrator, Peter McPherson, also was present -- recognized Mrs. Febres-Cordero's "devotion to improving the health of your nation's children by providing outstanding leadership, mobilizing the effort of many Ecuadorans in the public and private sectors as well as successfully employing contributions made by international donors to Ecuador's plan to reduce mortality and morbidity in children."

Shultz noted that he could see, just sitting at the luncheon table with Mrs. Febres-Cordero, "how deeply" she felt about the program she launched last year. "As you said, 'no matter how much you do for children, you should do more,' " he said, quoting her.

The three-year program also will educate Ecuadoran mothers in health care, including how to treat dehydration, one of the leading causes of death there. In its first year, an estimated 450,000 children were immunized in a two-week period with assistance from the military and the Roman Catholic Church.

Accepting her award, Mrs. Febres-Cordero spoke in Spanish through an interpreter. "How satisfying for me to be able to head a crusade of true social meaning," she said. "There are monuments to heroes and liberators in Latin American but never to children who are often illiterate, sick and undernourished, with no present and no future."

Right then might have been the moment for Febres-Cordero to speak up. But he didn't, so Shultz took it upon himself to offer a possible explanation:

"I have several grandchildren and I've noticed that when the 7- and 5-year-old boys observe their beautiful and adorable 2-year-old sister getting reams of attention, they like it -- sort of. And if you slip them a little something on the side, they like it a lot better."

Grinning broadly, Shultz then slipped Febres-Cordero a little something. "How do you like a leader of South America who likes the Yankees? Particularly the baseball New York Yankees?" Shultz asked.

With that, he gave Febres-Cordero a "genuine" Yankees jacket and a baseball signed by the team, and put a Yankees cap on Febres-Cordero's mane of graying hair.

Febres-Cordero took it all with a smile, but quickly removed the cap.