Robert M. LA FOLLETTE, the Wisonsin progressive, was out of office in 1897. Twice Mr La Follette had been denied the nomination for governor of Wisconsin by state Republican conventions. So "Fighting Bob" La Follette did what any resourceful and ambitious politician would do when confronted with a similar roadblock to public office: he and his allies fought successfully to change the rules by which governors were chosen. That is how direct primaries were born in Wisconsin.

The example of Mr. La Follette was not lost on those hardy souls who, beginning 12 years ago, set about changing the way we nominate and elect our presidents. The recent advocates of change, in fact, improved on the La Follette approach by first putting their opponents totally on the defensive. Changes were not proposed nor were revisions suggested. Instead, the issue was "reform." Reformers were for opening up the policical process, for bringing politics out of the back room, and for letting the people rather than the politicians choose the president. A fairly virtuous list for anyone to risk opposing. Those who took that risk were immediately branded with the ultimate pejorative; "regulars" were not only the captives of the entrenched interests but, even worse, the defenders of the status quo. And who needed to be reminded during the heyday of reform that the political status quo consisted of the riotous 1968 Democratic convention and several illegal millions in the 1972 Republican campaign?

The successes of the reform movement are everywhere around us as we enter this presidential year: twice as many primaries as three elections ago; the absolute elimination of the "fat cat" contributor from federal campaigns; and the mandated presence of women, minorities and young people in all the Democratic delegations at the convention. But herein lies a problem. Because these reforms were the product of two different institutions - the Congress and the Democratic Party -- and because those two groups apparently did not compare notes, their joint product is a lot more than (and a lot different from) what either institution, individually, intended.

The law (Congress') requires a candidate to limit his spending to receive matching public funds for his campaign. Right now, each candidate is limited to $13.2 million in seeking his party's nomination. Thirteen millions of dollars is a lot. But when you consider that next year as the legacy of one of the major reforms (Democratic Party rules) a potential president will face the incredible task of competing in three dozen separate primaries on only 14 weeks, it does not seem like a cost overrun, especialy when you remember that the most recent U.S. Senate campaigns in just three of those states -- North Carolina, Texas and Pennsylvania -- involved the spending of over $20 million. (All three of those states, of course, will have Republican presidential primaries in 1980.)

The traditional answer to such a campaign dilemma was to simply do more personal campaigning (which does not cost much money). But with so many elections in so short a time, that is no longer a solution. Every candidate will be forced to campaign in the most expensive fashion yet found: by buying advertising time on radio and television. The candidate who does not will be, in effect, unilateraly disarming before his opponents. The net effect of these aspects of the rules and legal reforms, in combination, will test every candidate's ability to do more with less. As things now stand, the management of cash flow will be far more critical to a presidential candidate's success than the imaginativeness of his proposals on either inflation or energy.