"Real awful about Mr. Reagan wantin' to cut down on welfare," the green-eyed bellhop said, reining his flat, Tidewater drawl into perspective for a moment.

"But folks around here aren't too worried. Ronnie's gonna crank it up and turn everything Navy gray."

Down around Norfolk, home port to 25 percent of today's Navy, most people have only kind words for President Reagan, David Stockman and the whole slew of politicians and bureaucrats advocating heftier spending for defense and less for social programs.

Not everyone puts it quite so bluntly as the bellhop; some seem hesitant to even speculate. But if Reagan's 1982 budget gets through Congress intact, Tidewater's sagging economy will be the beneficiary of perhaps billions of defense dollars come Oct. 1.

If Reagan does get his way, $128 million will be funneled here for military construction, over $40 million more than last year. The area, home of the largest and most intensive shipbuilding operations in the country, also will share in more than $9 billion slated for construction of new ships and the overhaul of old ones, almost twice the amount proposed by ex-Navyman and former Norfolk resident Jimmy Carter.

"That money is so important to the local economy," said Peter A. Loomis, a spokesman for Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R) of Norfolk. "It will provide thousands of jobs to contractors from large construction firms down to small contractors who provide things like paper, copier machines and any number of services."

"Tidewater will boom!" exchoes Rep. Paul Trible, who represents nearby Newport News, home of the country's largest shipyard.

Public relations aside, area economists and business leaders say that because of the long lead time and staggered payment schedules of large construction and shipbuilding projects -- a new, $3 billion nuclear aircraft carrier, for example, takes eight years to build -- some of the proposed spending increases will not prompt sudden surges in employment and limitless prosperity.

But it will provide stability -- knowledge, in these times of economic uncertainity; that the Tidewater of the 1980s promises to be financially secure, safe as the naturally protected harbor from which all livelihood here springs.

Considering what happened to the local economy last year, says Old Dominion University economist Jonathan Silberman, that is something to be bullish about. Last year, Silberman said, building permits in the area were down about 30 percent and employment in the construction sector was down 16 percent. Retail sales declined, as did retail employment. Bankruptcies were up 52 percent in the first quarter. Tax revenues were flat.

Reagan's money, Silberman said, "could lead to a boom." If it does, he said, it most likely will be the result of psychological security; the perception in the business community, that the dollars will be flowing for at least the next four years. Investment schedules will be cranked up and a type of prosperity, which some say hasn't been seen in these parts since the heady days of World War II, hopefully will follow.

"The business community here," said Marilyn Goldman, a spokeswoman for the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, "is bullish about the prospects though there is a little uncertainity about how it will all pan out and if we will get all the funding that Reagan has proposed. Right now, everybody's waiting and hoping."

If boom times arrive, it may come silently like one of the many ships passing through Norfolk's Thimble Shoals shipping canal at night. There will be no fireworks or Navy band heralding its arrival.

Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., for example, with 25,000 workers and wages and benefits payroll of $513 million a year, is the largest employer in Virginia. By next year, the company will have completed work on a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Carl Vincent, and will be well into production of still another.

Though completion of such a warship takes "192 man-centuries of work," in the words of shipyard spokesman James Griffith, neither his yard, nor the half-dozen other smaller ones in the area, will need to boost their employment immediately.

"We won't really need to employ more people. . . . We're busy now and we've been busy for some time," Griffith says. "If we have to build another carrier or a few more subs, the same people will be working on them as worked on the last two. The push for building more ships and enlarging the Navy will only mean that our employes can be assured of work for that much longer."

"These days, that's something," Griffith said.