TOM BRADEN -- PAT BUCHANAN, WRC -- AM, 980: The telephone switchboard is lit up like a Christmas tree. Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan -- afternoon radio's specialists in verbal repartee -- are seeking public opinion about illegal aliens.

A call comes in from a California congressman who is listening to the show on his way home. Another is from the principal plaintiff in a lawsuit involving illegal aliens. Leaning into their microphones, Braden and Buchanan answer the calls in relaxed, conversational tones. They encourage the conversant to talk.

Braden sets the pace. With his chair directly facing the control booth, he's the one who receives signals for commercials.

Throughout the break, the telephones -- six public lines and two private VIP lines reserved for guests and politicians -- keep buzzing. And Tom Braden -- syndicated columnist, author, academician -- chats pleasantly with Pat Buchanan -- syndicated columnist, political strategist and former Nixon speechwriter.

Several years ago, they wouldn't even appear on the same talk show. Now, from 4-7 p.m., weekdays, the two men host WRC radio's Buchanan-Braden "Confrontation" -- a meeting of right and left.

The call-in program focuses on topical issues of the day selected by the hosts. Subjects are culled from news stories, and range in depth from the hostages situation in Iran -- which elicted 4,000 calls during one recent program -- to grammar. Braden and Buchanan discuss a new subject each hour.

Because their audience ranges from cab drivers to congressmen, Buchanan and Braden are perhaps as well attuned to the political pulse of the nation as any recent survey.

According to their reading of the 1980 presidential election, the Republicans can stay home.

"We had every single Republican candidate on the air and no one was excited," said Buchanan. "With the possible exception of Kennedy and, of course, Carter, there are no political candidates out there that strike sparks."

"No one cares about Ronald Reagan," Braden added.

"Don't say that," Buchanan responded, trying to mask a grin.

"Well, it's true."

Social issues like illegal aliens, abortion and capital punishment stir up the most response, according to Braden and Buchanan. Their listeners are usually well-educated and versed on the issue of the day, they said. If not, they will be by the time the show is over, Braden said.

"The Hill listens to the program. I think the Hill listens to it damn near as much as they read The Washington Post," Braden said.

The program has provided unusually lively and informative moments. For example, on one recent afternoon, Mike Wallace, host of television's "60 Minutes," called in to describe his interview with Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

"The program has furnished, possible to a greater extent than letters to the editor, an outlet for people who are worked up, upset, angry, scared and want to say something about it. That's been particularly true about Iran," Braden said.

Characterizing their roles on the program, Buchanan said "It's a balance and complement, with an 'e' rather than an 'i'. When one of us is gone, the show lacks a certain spark. It doesn't have the same liveliness.

"We're interested in talking comentary. Radio debate. We're not in the radio of insult."

"We often agree," added Braden.