Wild rumors are floating around Washington. People say that you may actually run as an independent candidate for president when you fail to receive the Republican nomination. Sorry. Perhaps I should have said "if you fail." Still, while I don't want to hurt your feelings, I think you should know that the smart money in the GOP race is not riding on you. Please don't take it personally when I tell you that even the dumb money is not with you.

Some of us have the impression that you suspect this is the case. Given a hundred chances to slam the door on the independent option, you always leave it ajar. Lately you've been pushing the door open yourself, poking your head through and shouting, "Anybody out there?"

Reporters also track down those few of us who have been through an independent presidential campaign. They ask, "Can he do it? Is it possible?" You should not find the answers too encouraging.

If you start tomorrow, if you have $1 million to spend on the effort, and if absolutely nothing goes wrong, you might be able to run at least in 45 states and the District of Columbia. The bad news, of course, is Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will." And also O'Toole's Commentary on Murphy's Law: "Murphy was an optimist." O'Toole's Commentary must have been written with independent candidates in mind.

The longer you wait, the more Murphy and O'Toole will bear down on you. As you know, you have already missed independent filing deadlines in Maryland, New Mexico, Ohio, Maine and Kentucky. If you wait until the California GOP primary is over, you will also miss the independent deadlines in New Jersey, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Utah, West Virginia and probably Michigan. (Legislation pending there would set a filing deadline of June 3, the day of the California primary.) Assuming Michigan goes, you will miss states with 127 electoral votes -- nearly a quarter of the 538 votes in the electoral college.

If you wait until the end of the July 18 GOP convention, you will also lose Kansas, Wisconsin, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma. That means a grand total of 191 electoral votes for which you cannot even compete.

There are a couple of ways you could wait until the Republican convention without being exluded in all these states. One possibility is the draft-Anderson effort that has been announced to try to gain ballot lines for you (without your participation or consent, of course), leaving you free to do your thing in the GOP primaries. The other is litigation against early filing deadlines. The draft effort could save some states for you; letigation probably would not.

In any case, Murphy and O'Toole will still be on your back if you start late, because you will not have much time for mistakes in organization or logistics. The less time you have, the more risky every mistake becomes, and the more money you must spend to make up for any errors. If you wanted to run as an independent, you really should have started down that road last summer.

Well, John B., that's the short of it. For the long of it you should know more about state election laws, the 1976 experience and the impact of the Federal Election Campaign Act that you supported so heartily. That may help when you find a eucalyptus tree to think under -- though the picture becomes less and less cheerful as we go along.

To begin with, last week you seemed to rule out a "minority party" campaign, such as George Wallace's in 1968, emphasizing that the question is whether you will become an "independent" candidate, as Eugene McCarthy did in 1976. That's a good place to start having some second thoughts.

True, the "independent" route to getting on the ballot is usually the easier of the two, which is why minority-party candidates often choose to become independents in some states. But the reverse is the case in other states. In North Carolina, for example, an independent presidential candidate needs at least 166,377 petition signatures by April 25 to qualify, while a minority-party candidate needs only 10,000 signatures by June 1.

That's why pro-lifer Ellen McCormack, another independent candidate for president this year, may go the minority-party route in a few states. This kind of mixed approach might take more sense for you, too, John B. You could gain states that you would miss as a strict independent.

An alternative, if you really feel it politically important to maintain a purely independent status, is to meet the minority-party requirement while filing a lawsuit to compel the state to accept you as an independent. This would entangle you in more litigation than you may want, but you could do a good turn for future candidates if you strike down some discriminatory laws.

Whichever way you go, though, you must start early to have any chance at all. Otherwise, you will have to rely on that draft-Anderson campaign that you have nothing to do with to qualify you while you continue on the Republican road for a while.

There are some pitfalls, of course, in the draft approach, too: a) uncertain financial status under the Federal Election Campaign Act; b) inability of draft activists to talk with you, because of election-act restrictions; and c) the fact that several states with deadlines falling before the Republican convention require the presidential candidate's written consent for filing. But despite all of its problems, the draft effort may by your only chance to deal with Murphy and O'Toole.

Massachusetts and West Virginia are among the early-deadline states that aren't much fun. Massachusetts requires a minimum of 39,245 petition signatures. The rule of thumb in petitioning is to have enough "overage" to survive a strike-off rate of 30 percent; this means that you would need about 57,000 signatures in Massachusetts.

But the petition forms there are large and unwieldy, and each sheet must be restricted to signers from a single city or town. They must all be filed with the city and town registrars, who then check all signatures against their voting lists. Sometimes they make mistakes; in 1976 they struck off so many valid signatures for McCarthy that they kept him off the ballot. We had to go to court and prove the worth of our signatures. The same thing happened in Missouri in '76. Just to gain ballot status in 29 states, McCarthy had to become one of the busiest litigators in political history. He fought two dozen court cases; he won most of them, but it was not easy.

West Virginia is also no breeze. It requires a written declaration by the presidential candidate. It has a low signature requirement -- 7,510, or about 11,000 including overage -- but that is deceptive: All petition circulators must be West Virginia voters and each is supposed to circulate only within the "magisterial district" in which he lives. Scarcely anyone in West Virginia knows the boundaries of his or her magisterial district. The filing deadline, moreover, falls on June 2, the day before the party primary election, and no one who signs an independent petition can vote in the primary. eIn fact, it is a crime for anyone to do so -- a misdemeanor for which one can be jailed for a year. Can you imagine going to the slammer because you voted? bMurphy and O'Toole love West Virginia; it's one of their best states.

Well, John B., if you pass up the 16 states with filing deadlines before the Republican convention ends, you will save yourself a lot of trouble. On the other hand, there are those 191 electoral votes to think about.

If you switch to an independent bid right after the Republican convention, you could try to challenge those early deadlines in court. Gene McCarthy and a couple of independent congressional candidates knocked down some early deadlines in 1976.

But they ran strictly as independents. Your case would be undercut by the fact that you have tried to gain the Republican nomination this year. Judges are likely to say to you, in effect, "Hey, Mr. Anderson, you have already had one crack at this presidential business. We're not required to guarantee you two chances. You didn't even try to meet the early filing deadlines for independents, so how can you prove to us that those deadlines are unreasonable?"

The 34 states which have deadlines after the Republican convention include some easy ones: Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin. My own favorite is North Dakota, which requires only 300 signatures and has the latest filing deadline in the country, Sept. 25.

But there are also some real toughies, such as California. Counting the overage needed to survive strike-offs, you'll need about 145,000 petition signatures there. They must all be gathered in the summer, between June 9 and Aug. 8. All circulators must be California voters. (At least 10 other states require that circulators be in-state voters. Think how you would be handicapped in the Republican primaries if all your workers had to be in-staters.)

Delaware has a low signature requirement but makes signers list their Social Security numbers, which is likely to scare off quite a few people. South Carolina requires that both precinct number and voter-registration-certificate number be listed for each petition signer. In Missouri you will need roughly 25,000 signatures to have enough insurance against strike-offs; you must also meet a complex distribution requirement which involves congressional districts.

New York similarly has a distribution requirement, absurdly complex filing rules, and a tradition of candidates knocking each other off the ballot through technical challenges. This is where the Carter folks ambushed us in '76. It was a long, bloody and expensive court battle; not only did we lose in the end, but we're still trying to pay the legal bills. Watch out for New York, John B.!

By now you may suspect that many state laws were written to keep independents off the ballot. I am sorry to tell you this, but the Democrats and Republicans do not like competition. Long experience has taught them that the best way to squelch it is to legislate it out of existence.

Besides legal minefields in some states, petitioners for independent candidates face certain basic problems everywhere. Petitioning is hard, grueling work -- among the most difficult work in all of politics. It can be done door-to-door in neighborhoods, but this tends to be slow. Most petitioners look for busy public places: shopping centers, supermarkets, college campuses, sporting events, parks. But many of these gathering spots are on private property whose owners take a dim view of political activity. Petitioners are often asked to leave just when they are beginning to make progress.

Some may even encounter threats. Our McCarthy petitioners did not have as tough a time as the Communist Party petitioners who, trying to put Gus Hall on the ballot in 1976, were confronted by a pistol-packing college official in Alabama, or the other C.P. workers who were arrested on a campus in Kentucky.

But a man in Kansas, politely approached by one of our petitioners, responded with a snarl, "I'll kick you in the teeth." A McCarthy worker in Massachusetts, petitioning at Revere Beach near Boston, was thrown off a ledge and onto some rocks by a few local toughs. Luckily, the drop was only about five feet; he wasn't hurt, just lost a few buttons from his shirt. He hung onto his petition board and continued to work the beach. One of our best organizers was petitioning at an amusement park in Maine; a drunk there assumed that she was a Communist worker and socked her in the mouth. Her chief souvenir of the '76 campaign is a chipped tooth.

Where, you may wonder, is the good news? You have just heard the good news. The bad news in the Federal Election Campaign Act.

I don't want to be tactless, John B., but you really should have taken a closer look at that monster before you became one of its chief supporters and suggested that the public funding it provides for major-party candidates is just about the greatest thing since ice cream. If you decide to run as an independent, you may find yourself hoist on your own petard, done in by your own reformist zeal. Murphy and O'Toole will give three gloomy cheers.

The law's contribution limit of $1,000 per candidate per campaign will hit you hard as soon as you switch to an independent race. By that time, most of your large donors will have given up to the limit of $1,000 for the primary period. The most you can receive from them will be another $1,000 for the general election. You will need to hire petitioners to meet some filing deadlines, and you will want to buy television time. You may find it difficult to scrape together enough money.

There is a special contribution limit of $20,000 a year to a political party. Independents need not apply. If you change your mind and form a minority party, you can try to qualify it for the $20,000 limit. But the Federal Election Commission almost certainly will demand proof that the party is more than a one-man show. If the party has no candidates for the Senate or House, the FEC will probably say that it is not a genuine party. (Murphy and O'Toole admire the FEC; they are thinking of offering it a full partnership in their firm.)

What about public funding? There isn't any for independent and minority-party candidates. This means that you must raise all of your money from private sources, subject to the contribution limits, while your opponents grunt their way up to the public through and feed at will. In addition to the roughly $20 million in matching funds which you and other primary candidates have received and the millions more to come before the conventions, the Democratic nominee and the Republican nominee will reach receive nearly $30 million from Uncle Sam for the fall campaign.

If your campaign in the Republican primaries had been a live-off-the-land affair, with no public subsidies, your staff at least would have no adjustment problem when you switch to an independent campaign. But you have received over $2 million in public funds, all of it coming since the first of the year. For February, for example, public funds accounted for 48 percent of your monthly receipts. In short, you're hooked.

When the funds are cut off, you will feel like a heroin addict who goes cold-turkey. You may even fact the trauma of having to return money to the public treasury, because matching funds already received can be used only for your GOP primary effort. If any is left over, back it goes to Uncle Sam. y(Murphy and O'Toole will arrange the repayment ceremony.)

Of course, your staff could try to cheat a little bit by having people on your current payroll start working on an independent campaign. But you and I know, John B., how vigilant the Federal Election Commission is, at least where independent candidates are concerned. Better not try to cheat; the FEC will have auditors hanging from your light fixtures, sleeping in your filing cabinets, burrowing through all of your invoices and cancelled checks.

You may have one chance to try for public subsidies, because the law provides them retroactively for a new-party candidate who receives at least 5 percent of the popular vote in the general election. This means that, if you form a new party, and if the FEC recognizes it as such, and if you can get bank loans or credit from vendors, and if you manage to get 5 percent of the vote in November, you will receive a certain amount of money to pay off your debts. You may not find this opportunity exciting, but it's all you will have. It should be called the Murphy-O'Toole Memorial Plan for New Parties.

Better tell your staff to start getting used to the local "Y" instead of the Holiday Inn and to McDonald's instead of the fancier restaurants. When things get really bad, they can always turn to sleeping bags and peanutbutter-and-jelly sandwiches. This is the way it's done on the wrong side of the political tracks.

Well, John B., I hope all of this has not depressed you too much. It is really better to know what it's like out there for independents before you decide whether to join their ranks.

There is one other thing you should know about, too. You may by a new hero to the liberals just now, but you cannot count on them for the long haul. When the going gets tough, the tough are supposed to get going, but the liberals generally advance to the rear. Or as two of our best Iowa workers put it, when November comes there is usually a "mass return of liberals to their appointed warm places in the Democratic Party's pocket."

They will be enticed, urged, and finally driven back to that pocket by dire warnings that "a vote for Anderson is a vote for Reagan." John White, the Democratic national chairman, has already sent this theme out for a practice jog; you will hear a lot more about it if you decide to go independent. The Democrats think they have a right to the Liberals and a large chunk of the independent voters. You may talk all you want about building a new coalition; they won't buy it, and they will work overtime to make sure that the media won't buy it either.

You are likely to find that reporters will not love you in November as they do in April. As election day nears, political reporters begin to sound like sports reporters, with dark references to an independent candidate as "the spoiler" and the "bad loser." They, too, deep down, think the Democrats and Republicans have a right to take turns running the country. Nothing you can say is likely to shake loose this conviction.

In conclusion, John B., if what you are really interested in is making a point or putting in for martyrdom or building for the future and shaking up the two-party system, then you should start tomorrow, hit the ground running and never look back. But if winning this time is really your purpose, the best advice I can offer you is something Bob Hope said in a commencement address at Georgetown University some years ago. hHe remarked that "I'd like to offer a couple of words of advice to you young people about to go out into the world." He paused a moment, then added: "Don't go."