When John B. Anderson held his 58th birthday party campaign rally in Boxboro, Mass., a few weeks ago, there was a drawing for souvenirs of the event. The prizes for the lucky winners were papier-mache golden halos. Therein lies both the charm and the risk of this unusual candidacy.

With his strong showing in the Massachusetts and Vermont primaries last week, Anderson has demonstrated his thesis that a presidential contender willing to challenge the accepted orthodoxies of Republican doctrine can attract support far beyond the normal boundaries of his party's constituency.

When I saw that his Massachusetts campaign schedule included a sheech to the Brookline chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, it seemed bizarre. But Anderson knew what he was doing. It was the liberals in places like Brookline and the college students who were the backbone of his campaign.

There has not been such an outpouring of enthusiasm for a candidate at the Eastern colleges since Eugene J. McCarthy was running for president in 1968. McCarthy spoke directly to the students' concerns about the Vietnam War and its effect on American society. Anderson is drawing a similar response by speaking directly to their concerns about the renewal of a "Cold War" psychology in the Persian Gulf and its effect at home.

McCarthy saw himself as a man offering his party an escape from a politically and morally destructive error. But in the end, his own self-righteous anger at the party's rejection of his candidacy and counsel made him a divisive and destructive force.

That same potential is there in the Anderson candidacy. Reporters -- this one included -- like John Anderson, for many of the same reasons we liked McCarthy. He uses language well, and language is our coin of exchange. He says what he thinks, as we like to think we do. He can be caustically critical of other politicians, which is, of course, our stock in trade.

We tend to overlook the moral arrogance implicit in many of his judgments, because we have more than our share of that quality ourselves.

But politicians do not overlook that quality -- or easily tolerate it -- in their colleagues. And it is a fact that John Anderson is an isolated figure within the Republican Party, not only because of his deviant views but because of his implied attitude that he is viewing the world from a more principled perspective than others are. That aspect of Anderson's relationship with the GOP is likely to become much clearer now that he is taking his candidacy home to Illinois for the March 18 primary. It is tough to be a saintly politician in your own home town. People know you all too well.

Two years ago, Anderson very nearly lost a congressional primary in Rockford to a less-than-brilliant right-wing minister. Anderson escalated a minor political problem into a near-electoral disaster by conveying a clear sense of being personally affronted by the impertinence of such a challenge. His constituents decided their congressman needed a lesson in humility.

There is a good deal of "let's-put-John B.-in-his-place" talk among Illinois Republicans now. A low of it comes from people whose view of the world is far from elevated. But Anderson's ability to raise the hackles of live-and-let-live politicians of his own party is a factor that ought to be weighed seriously by those considering the character of an Anderson administration.

As Jimmy Carter's example shows, it takes just a touch of self-righteousness to poison relations with Congress. And Anderson has more than a touch.

My own feeling is that Anderson has gained an enviable position for himself in American public life, whether or not he wins the long-shot gamble for a presidential nomination. By dint of his personal effort, he has achieved the national audience he so often craved during his long years in the House.

There is no doubt that he has something to say to America and that, in challenging so much of the conventional wisdom of his party and his times, with such rare eloquence, he can do what men like Adlai Stevenson and John Gardner have done in the past -- whatever position he holds.

John Anderson will never lack a public forum for his views in the future -- just as long as he does not follow McCarthy's path into personally vindictive rage at his likely political comeuppance. Anderson will be fine, in short, if he just remembers those are papier-mache halos, not real ones.