IN his new book, On Press , New York Times columnist Tom Wicker writes of his days as a Times Washington correspondent. He tells of the front row seat at presidential press conferences, the framing of big questions and the answers from presidents. Wicker says that in 1962 perhaps 10 Times reporters worked on the wording of one question he posed to President John F. Kennedy about the presence of American troops in Vietnam.

National exposure. Excitement. Importance.

For about a quarter of the 1,200 reporters accredited by the House and Senate press galleries, being a Washington correspondent isn't like that at all. They are the one-person bureaus and the "regional" reporters assigned by newspapers or through news services to cover Washington's impact back home. Call them "homers," as writer Larry King once did disparagingly in a Washington Star column.

President Carter, or any other president, may never hear their questions. They seldom make it to the White House. Rather than file several long reports on national policy for a major newspaper, these reporters are more likely to file two or three stories a day localizing federal issues in Bridgeport, Lincoln or Harrisburg. On the national scene, they are seldom recognized, but their voices are all over town.

Housing Secretary Patricia Harris and presidential adviser Stuart Eizenstat hold a press conference on Jimmy Carter's urban policy. They explain broad directives when a voice from the back calls, "What does that mean for the South Bronx?"

Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrats announce at a large press briefing that air pollution across the country has abated, but that air in urban areas is still unhealthy. "What about south Florida? How about Hawaii?" the voices chorus. The questions are passed down a table of administrators until one of them knows the answer.

Transportation Secretary Brock Adams announces that his department wants Amtrak passenger train routes cut back, an automatic regional story. Adams is asked why certain states are proposed to be left out of his new system and, "What will the people in Omaha do with a newly refurbished train station?"

"Not much," said Adams, who wants to discontinue the Chicago-San Francisco "Zephyr" that runs through Omaha.

The typical day for a regional or small bureau reporter might consist of adding up a home state senator's speaking fees for the previous year, following the local congressman's minor role at a House hearing running down a federal statistic for an editor's pet editorial and checking to see if a defense contract was awarded to a hometown firm. The pace can be frantic, but the gripes flow faster than the copy.

Editors cut stories in half, the reporters say. There's no time to do background pieces about what it's "really" like in Washington. The newspapers won't let you cover national issues, leaving that to the wire services. Swept up in recurrent anti-Washington sentiment, the reporters say it's hard to fight for space and play over the telephone. Reporters from most newspapers complain their editors are simply too parochial.

"All they're interested in is floods, military bases and foreign imports," said one correspondent for a middle-sized daily in the Northeast.

Carping aside, most Washington reporters are forced to admit that they enjoy their jobs. They don't, by and large, envy Tom Wicker. They believe in what they are doing.

Putting things in perspective, the Washington correspondent's post is the choicest assignment that most newspapers can offer. One big reason: presence in Washington is expensive. A one-reporter bureau generally costs from $30,000 to $60,000 or more a year to operate, depending on how well the reporter is paid and equipped. For that two or more new reporters could be hired at home. Consequently, few newspapers have opened bureaus here in recent years. Dailies represented in Washington increasingly get their coverage independent from news services or from group bureaus of newspaper chains. News services can offer regional reporting for between $50 and $500 a week, far cheaper than the cost of a newspaper's individual bureau.

Bucking that trend, however, was the decision of the relatively small Hutchinson (Kan.) News (circulation 46,582) to open an office in Washington this spring.

Sometimes the creation of a Washington bureau results more from a reporter's initiative than from a newspaper's making a weighty economic decision. While serving as a student-reporter in the Washington program of Northeastern University's Medill School of Journalism in 1976, Michael Isikoff convinced the Alton Telegraph that coverage of one issue - the proposed reconstruction of Lock and Dam 26 on the Missouri River near Alton - would be worth $100 per week. Isikoff has since parlayed his reportage on the massive project into a career. Now at States News Service, Isikoff is a full-time correspondent for seven Illinois dailies and one weekly. He helped sell most of the clients himself.

Another reporter surviving on a more bizarre form of chutzpah is Stuart Levitan.

"I'm the only one up here that I know of who drops acid and gets off on the Grateful Dead."

The 24-year-old Levitan breezes through the Senate Press Gallery in the Capitol for another performance. The Act is almost three years old. Levitan opened as a Washington correspondent at $25 a week after talking the Madison Capital-Times into some coverage of Wisconsin congressmen. One of the nation's most liberal newspapers had hired a self-proclaimed counter-culture journalist. A good match if there ever was one.

But whether he tries erotic dancing, as he did in a Madison disco last fall, or fools Washington costume partygoers with an in-drag get-up, Levitan appears out of place. On the job, he is the only reporter who wails Jimi Hendrix lyrics or recites Hunter Thompson's gonzo journalism between stories.

Veteran reporters here scoff at his dress - jeans, a striped shirt and a paisley scarf set off by red, white and blue tennis shoes would be a not unusual costume for him. His colleagues wince as the aroma of his Turkish cigarettes wafts through the gallery - some are convinced it's marijuana. They scowl when he violates rules, such as loitering too near the main entrance of the Senate chambers. They laugh when he twice fails to be elected a member of the standing committee of correspondents, which sets policy in the House and Senate press galleries. Levitan ran partly on a platform that male reporters shouldn't have to wear ties when they take press gallery seats in the chamber to cover action on the Senate floor below.

Often, Levitan's youthful demeanor shows up in his copy. When Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., gave a speech in Washington to a university audience on biofeedback and other trendy topics, Levitan led his dispatch with:

"WASHINGTON - He may not look like a long-hair, but Sen. William Proxmire sometimes sounds like a hippie."

Levitan's attempt to infuse his work with his lifestyle has worn thin in the tradition-bound galleries press. He talks darkly of "concerted attempts to get me out of here" during his first year in Washington. Losing accreditation from the galleries would be no small thing. Like many reporters who either don't have an office or who find the Capitol quarters convenient most of the day, Levitan makes plenty of use of tax-subsidized typewriters, copy paper, telephones and assistance from the gallery staffs.

But if his Act got him in some trouble, Don Womack, superintendent of the Senate gallery, says the phase may have passed.

"He's pretty well accepted now. He's mellowing a little bit. For a while, he had to break all the rules, not once, but twice," Womack says in a fatherly tones.

Despite the throwback rhetoric from the 1960s - "I spend much of my time pricking the conscience of the establishment" - Levitan has become very much a typical Capitol Hill reporter. He chases deadlines. He chronicles the same water projects and congressional hearings others feel they must cover. Some differences remain. While others choose to staff a banking regulation hearing, Levitan may jump over to federal court hearing on the effect of paraquat on marijuana from Mexico. Colleagues who notice describe Levitan's stories as competent, even sober, accounts of congressional activity.

"If you judge him by his work, he's probably a good newspaperman. He asks penetrating questions," says the top aide to one congressman Levitan has covered.

Just as he is achieving some respectability in spite of himself, however, the Levitan nirvana of a liberal reporter working for a liberal newspaper writing about Congress' most liberal delegation, is tenuous. Although Levitan worked his way "up" to a $100 weekly salary after two years with Capital-Times, he and The Newspaper Guild, to which he belongs, honored a strike against the newspaper by the printers' union last October. He has been working since then for the Madison Press Connection, a Tuesday-through-Saturday paper published by striking reporters. Levitan's "salary" now is $55 a week in strike benefits. And for all his fulminations about the establishment, Levitan admits to having fallen prey to a weakness other Washington reporters try to avoid.

"The Wisconsin delegation," he says flatly, "is the best on the Hill. They are, with a few exceptions, all honest men of decency and ability. I get along frighteningly well with them. With a few exceptions, I agree with what they do. There are people who have much more adversarial relationships with the congressmen they cover. I worry I might be too close to some of them," Levitan says.

Asked when he last angered a Wisconsin lawmaker, Levitan recalls a Georgetown dinner more than a year ago with Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis. Levitan realized he was "in over my head" at an expensive restaurant, but wrote Aspin a check to cover the dinner. It bounced.

"I can't claim credit for saying they're mad at me [over stories]. I can't say I've angered the people I cover. I won't say I've written puff pieces about these guys, but I feel that if I write accurately, their decency and ability will be reflected," Levitan says.

Washington journalists who are less enamoured of the political thinking of lawmakers they follow sometimes devise hypothetical traps to test congressional sincerity. When he was director of Capitol Hill News Service, Peter Gruenstein invented one such device. Why not, Gruenstein reasoned, write congressmen two letters - one favoring an issue and another opposed - and then ask client newspapers to have constituents send the letters? Would members answer their mail honestly, or would they tell constituents what they wanted to hear?

Several newspapers cooperated with Gruenstein and his reporters. Resulting stories on the representatives' answers revealed transparent attempts to side with constituents on both sides of the issue. The ploy also brought home another problem for Washington reporters: hometown editors often feel at one with the local congressman. One Kentucky editor, in refusing to try the letter-writing proposal, wrote the news service that:

"We are too close to the congressman to become involved in questioning his honesty and integrity."

Newspaper owners often get involved when the conduct of a state's most important public officials is questioned. Take the experiences of Ken Peterson, a 30-year-old Washington correspondent for the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal.

Peterson has it all over Clark Kent for mild manners. In the world of reporters here, he doesn't come on strong. His copy is workman-like, sometimes even bland. He has no crusades; he just wants to do his job. As he puts it, summarizing the way he works, "I don't go around looking for dirt." But when a congressional staffer called Peterson about a year ago with a tip that Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., was using the Library of Congress to do some free searching of the Dole family tree, the reporter wasn't about to pass the lead up.

Peterson's page 1 story in the morning Daily Capitol on June 24, 1977, was headlined, 'Government traces Dole's roots.' It was the kind of story any reporter likes to file from Washington - another indication, albeit a minor one, that members of Congress can get a lot of things done at their whim with taxpayers' dollars.

The story said that the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service (CRS) had provided Dole with family heritage information from the senator's native Russell County, Kan., and portions of a history book on two Ohio counties where Dole relatives had been traced. Peterson characterized the work as "sketchy compared to other CRS studies" and carefully noted that CRS referred Dole on to genealogical records of the National Archives.

The reporter asked whether the CRS task was "a legitimate use of tax dollars." An aide said if the senator "would have thought otherwise he would not have done it." Dole refused to be interviewed. The aide explained that Dole hadn't expected any detailed work from CRS, which normally analyzes legislative topics for lawmakers. A CRS spokeswoman sealed off further inquiries with the standard statement that research service contacts with congressmen are privileged.

Peterson was feeling well pleased with the Dole story as he returned to his more usual reportorial activities, standard farm-oriented coverage for his newspaper. The conservative Daily Capital and its sister evening paper, the Journal (combined circulation, 87,000) are the flagships of a 17-publication chain owned by Stauffer Publications. The Topeka papers are best known for excellent photography - several alumni have been named press photographers of the year. Peterson had also known his newspapers to have another quality: the editors had let him write with little interference. Relations with Dole, too, had been cordial during Peterson's eight months on the Hill to that point. So Peterson was surprised on a visit to Dole's office soon after the story ran. The senator was miffed.

"He called me a 'cheap-shot artist' to my face," Peterson recalls. Relations were cool for several weeks thereafter, but nothing compared to some lawmakers' practice of refusing interviews for months to reporters who write less than complimentary stories. Most reporters here are used to that. They are also used to having their newspapers back them up. Peterson's didn't.

Word got back to Kansas that Dole was displeased. Stanley Stauffer, president of Stauffer Publications, wrote Dole a letter three weeks after the genealogy story ran.

"Bob, I wanted to let you know I 'winced' when I picked up the Capital the other morning," Stauffer wrote.

Stauffer didn't defend Peterson, except to say his reporter had wanted to protect himself and the Capital-Journal because syndicated columnist Jack Anderson was about to run the story. (Anderson did lay it out, on ABC television's "Good Morning, America" show the same morning Peterson's story appeared in Topeka.)

Stauffer's father, 91-year-old Oscar Stauffer, followed with another apologetic letter. The still-active publisher of the family chain told Dole the Peterson story was "a damn snippy piece . . . [I] told the desk how damanable I thought it was." The elder Stauffer also enclosed a Washington political column on Dole's quest for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. "We may yet have a president from Kansas," Stauffer signed off.

When Peterson learned of the Stauffers' letters, he was "very hurt . . . then very mad." The only direct contact from Topeka about the Dole story had been an editor calling to ask who had been the source of the tip. Peterson didn't divulge his source. Dole eventually started granting interviews again and things continued as if nothing had happened.

Mirroring the enthusiasm of other reporters a little entranced with the Washington milieu, Peterson says the incident didn't sour him on journalism here.

"Ever since I went to journalism school, I wanted to come to Washington," says Peterson, who earned his plum after covering the Kansas statehouse four years. He's grateful for the chance. Any other complaints he has are very common.

"There's a feeling of isolation when you first get here. Washington is so big, scattered and diffused, you don't have a chance to cultivate good sources. You'e generally on the phone in the office all day talking to people you don't know. You can write a whole story by talking to aides and assistants without ever quoting a prime source. "It's different than the Topeka statehouse," Peterson says.

Ruminating on his year and a half in Washington, Peterson yearns to write more about national issue "even though small bureaus aren't supposed to duplicate the wire services." Peterson's only major break from the steady farm coverage regimen a Kansas beat requires came last year, when President Carter included two proposed Kansas dams on his public works "hit list." The controversy let him in the back door of a national story he could file on regularly.

Though he's busy enough not to be preoccupied by it, the Dole experience haunts Peterson.

"I haven't run into anything like that since. No, I wouldn't hesitate to write a similar story again. But I'm not out looking for dirt on the senator," Peterson says.

As Peterson goes through his paces, Oscar Stauffer's words to Dole ring a little in the reporter's ears: "I don't think it will happen again," the publisher wrote the senator almost a year ago.

A self-assured and accomplished reporter, Leo Rennert is neither worrying about his ideological mind-set nor wondering if his bosses will back him up. For 12 years a Washington correspondent for the McClatchy Newspapers, the 47-year-old Rennert reports primarily for the Sacramento Bee. Journalist in and outside California regard him as one of the best regional reporters in the capital.

While he plugs away at localized topics just as the other regionals do, Rennert is one of few who have shown a good regional reporter can break national news. Two years ago, for example, Rennert scooped the national press on a story about the CIA funneling money to anti-Communist elements in Italy.

"We've fought over the years for stronger recognition for what we do," says Rennert, and as a result, MCClatchy editors giver Rennert good space and play. He admits to a built-in advantage of being able to take off on national stories because his beat includes Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston and House Commerce Committee veteran John Moss.

So Rennert has cultivated good news sources, basked in a good reputation and enjoyed the support of editors who understand. Could he become complacent? Could he let politicians use him to their advantage, even temporarily?

"It really hasn't happened. You can get caught in the middle with politicians, but you always know how to be on guard. Gov. [Jerry] Brown can breeze into town and say, 'I've just been to the White House. And they're going to give us a new break on oil entitlements or some such.' You have to learn to say, 'Wait a minute Jerry, that's not what happened,'" Rennert says.

But even Rennert can get "caught," as he put it, in the crush of a Washington news day.

Early this year, the same Gov. Brown visited Washington to confer with Carter administration officials on the difficulties California oil producers were having with federal price regulations. Rennert and others reported Brown's claim after the administration talks that he had won a "real breakthrough and a victory" for the producers. Brown boasted to the media that his lobbying had prompted the administration to relax discrminatory pricing of heavy California crude oil "for the first time."

After a protest from State Controller Ken Cory, Rennert ran a follow-up story quoting Cory as saying Brown's claim of victory was premature and that, in any case, others had been working on the problem long before the governor took credit in the media.

Although Rennert says "everybody can get gah-gah-eyed and succumb to" a politician's pitch, he claims some regional reporters have an advantage over correspondents from larger newspapers. "One thing that saves us is that we come from 3,000 miles away. We retain a small-town skepticism. There's less temptation to play the establishment game," he says.

If Rennert had his way, the cliche' "one-man Washington bureau" would be obsolete.

"There's an Afghanistanism back home. Newspapers ought to staff Washington on the same basis they cover city hall. If it's all right to cover city officials, why isn't it all right to cover federal officials? It's a dichotomy no self-respecting newspaper should allow," Rennert says.

Rennert ranks his own McClatchy arrangement as "less than adequate, but better than most." He and George Baker, who serves the Modesto and Fresno Bee papers, write for a combined circulation of about 400,000. A recent Columbia Journalism Review article noted that more than half the daily newspaper readers in 13 states get no regional coverage out of Washington. Authors Edmund Lambeth and John A. Byrne also said 14 newspaper groups with 200,000 circulation or more had no Washington reporters.

At the other end of the list, Rennert says the larger newspapers don't focus Washington news at home much better.

"It's the big bureau syndrome to go afther the big story. What the editors want is what the White House said today, the Pentagon said today, the Speaker said today. They're not interested in what legislation Congressman Joe Jones introduced today," he says.

Rennert's opinion may be born out in a two-year study being conducted by the Brookings Institution on how Washington reporters spend their time - what stories they cover and what stories they don't. Brookings researcher Stephen Hess says the study will be "non-threatening," since value judgments about the quality of writing will be avoided. But when results are released next year, Hess has a hunch the research will show that localized reporting gets the short shrift out of Washington.

"Editors and reporters only want to cover the sexy national issues," Hess says.

Reporters like Frank Hewlett, who has worked 27 years in Washington, have spent a career proving that the local angle works with smaller newspapers. Now 68, Hewlett is considering retirement. He recalls the more exciting stories that he covered - the Senate's censure of Joseph McCarthy, Hawaii's long struggle for statehood and the western states' battle over Colorado River water. But more than other correspondents, who might argue that there is room for enterprise and investigative reporting in a Washington regional beat, Hewlett candidly describes his lot as a limited-service one. "I call myself the sewer grants editor," Hewlett says.

When Hewlett calls his client newspapers every day, the Seattle Times at 10:30 a.m. and the Salt Lake City Tribune at 4:30 p.m., the story "budget" discussion isn't pretentious. Typical fare includes a stream of two-page accounts of appointments to federal jobs, project grant approvals, a lawmaker's reaction to a prominent issue or an official's press conference of interest in Washington state or Utah. Most stories start with a press release or a call from press secretaries for the nine representatives and four senators serving the two states.

"I regard myself as a provincial writer . . . nothing more than that. I'm a bulletin writer, not a feature or interpretive writer. It may not be the best, but it's probably the most." Hewlett says.

"The job can demand as many as a dozen stories and story inserts in a day," Hewlett says. He used to write a column covering the federal issues affecting readers at home. Now Hewlett gathers most of his news from his desk in the Senate press gallery.

"You have to be careful with what they feed you," Hewlett says, "but being a one-man bureau, I have to let the press relations people do my legwork for me."

As Hewlett views the Washington news scene, two trends - one political, the other economic - have led to what can be a frantic pace for smaller bureaus.

Politically, officeholders are more eager for media coverage than they used to be, he says. Television exposure requires more news conferences, which still must be staffed by print reporters. According to Hewlett, the immediately of television has diminished the number of press releases containing genuine news. It means "you have to do more spade work," he says. Most congressional committees now meet openly. When many committee chairmen used to meet secretly, Hewlett says, reporters were forced to wait until a bill report was filed days later to discover the details of proposed legislation.

Economically, the more leisurely pace of working for one newspaper out of Washington "is a thing of the past," Hewlett says. He advised young reporters to have at least two newspapers to assure a better salary. If that increased work load leads to more quantity than quality, Hewlett says it's best to seek more clients and get a partner.

With his two newspapersetup, Hewlett earns "about $30,000," a high salary for regional correspondents.

Few reporters on Washington's provincial beats do well at explaining why they like their jobs, why they want to stay here. Asked about his professional background, Hewlett does announce with some flair, "Oh, you can look it up in Who's Who."

Perhaps Wicker, who was a homer himself once, describes the Washington lure for reporters, whether they cover the big stories or not. In his book Wicker writes that after eight months of reporting North Carolina issues from Washington for the Winscton-Salem Journal in 1975, he encountered ". . . the desire to be recognized, to have access where others are denied, to be part of things, to belong to the world of power and influence and decision, no matter how peripherally."

Wicker calls that impulse "the deadliest impulse of the Washington reporter," but he succumbed. He writes:

"I knew I was where I wanted to be, and I hated the thought of going back to North Carolina. I wanted to stay in proximity to the great -as near as I could get to the heart of the matter."