The 1980 presidential race may turn out to be a milestone for the nation's 4.4 million federal workers and retirees.

This is the first campaign in which both major candidates have gone out of their way to court the federal worker vote, and to say nice things about the people who get a federal paycheck. In the final days of the race, the Carter-Mondale and Reagan-Bush organizations have made a big push to get endorsements from government union leaders. And both sides have made a genuine attempt -- admittedly a little late in some cases -- to understand the bread-and-butter issues affecting federal workers and retirees.

Part of the reason for this change from bureaucrat-eating-bug to civil-servants-are-beautiful butterfly is because it's a very close race.And in close races -- particularly when each side thinks it can win it -- both sides try harder.

Barry Goldwater's people didn't seek the bureaucratic vote in 1964, in part because they knew they were going to be beaten badly. Carter did not seek it because he ran an essentially anti-bureaucracy, anti-Washington campaign in 1976. He came to town to clean up, not to make up with feds.

Ronald Reagan has long been considered as antibureaucrat as anybody in politics. And he, like Carter, has taken some heavy swipes at bureaucrats, overregulation, big government, red tape and the like.

This time, however, both Carter and Reagan sometimes sound as if they are seeking the presidency of a government union local, rather than the national job. They know there are lots of you, that you vote, and you hold the potential tie-breaking votes in places like Texas, New York, California and Pennsylvania, not to mention Maryland and Virginia.

For instance, there are 292,929 federal workers in California and 183,128 government retirees. New York has 157,844 federal workers and 56,000 U.S. retirees. Pennsylvania has 126,370 federal employes and 80,000 retirees. There are equally big numbers in Ohio, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan and other places the winner will need in his column.

Consequently, both candidates have pledged to fight any merger of the civil service retirement system with social security. That means, if they are telling the truth, they would veto such a plan if Congress ever approves the merger.

Ironically, Reagan is the more liberal of the two when it comes to another item of interest to federal workers and, particularly, retirees. He has pledged, in writing, his opposition to the plan in Congress that would eliminate one of the two cost-of-living raises retirees now get each year.

Both candidates, in recent days, have issued statements praising the dedication and loyalty of civil servants. Can this be an American presidential election?

Wisely, I think federal union leaders who have endorsed candidates this year have split their endorsements. The days when the Democrats could automatically count federal and postal labor leaders in their column are gone. Not completely, but somewhat. The split endorsements will give unions clout, and the right to say I-was-with-you, no matter who wins.

The predominantly black National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employes leadership is with Carter; so is the executive board (on a 10-to-3 vote) of the American Postal Workers Union . . . . The President of the National Association of Letter Carriers issued a personal endorsement and the National Treasury Employes Union, which earlier had backed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, now is backing Carter.

Reagan has been endorsed by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, an AFL-CIO affiliate. And Charles W. Carter, a national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employes, has endorsed Reagan, although AFGE President Kenneth Blaylock, whom the Carter people would love to have in their camp, has not backed any presidential candidate. The Reagan people hope to pick up one or two other independent federal union endorsements by tomorrow.

No matter who ends up winning on Tuesday, the fact that "dedicated civil servant" has replaced "drone" and "bureaucrat" in both candidates' vocabularies is already a sign of victory for federal workers.