TEN YEARS AGO, Paul Laxalt was worn out -- his private life by a disintegrating marriage and his public life frazzled by four years as governor during which Howard Hughes bought Nevada and, some said got Laxalt in the deal.

Laxalt, a Basque sheepherder's son who spent many of his early days in the solitude of the high Nevada rangelands, surveyed his broken life and said to hell with it. He pulled out of the marriage and politics, too, quoting the odds, as a Nevadan is wont to do, at 1,000-to-1 against ever returning to public life.

Laxalt should have taken his own bet. Ten years later he is not only back in politics but he is sitting in a catbird's seat that would have impressed even his old constituent, Howard Hughes.

Time magazine calls the sophomore senator from Nevada "suddenly one of the most powerful men in Washington." Laxalt is President Reagan's closet elected friend, and Reagan thinks so highly of him that during the transition the president wanted to institutionalize the friendship by giving Laxalt a separate office and staff in the Executive Office Building.

That ran up against the constitutional dictum on the separation of powers so, instead, Laxalt has become Reagan's ambassador without portfolio to the Senate. When the president visits Capitol Hill, he is likely to have Laxalt at his side as he is the Senate majority leader, Howard H. Baker Jr.

In Washington, such closeness translates directly into power. Favor-seekers now line up at Laxalt's door. Even insiders listen closely for tips on how Reagan will move on issues ranging from the MX missile to the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Whether such power is more illusory than real is almost beside the the point and Laxalt, the deeply conservative chairman of Reagan's last two presidential campaigns, understands that well.

"If there is a perception of power," Laxalt says, with a western candor that has become his trademark, "that is the greatest power."

On Rte. 95, the desert road leading north toward Paul Laxalt's boyhood home, there is a point somewhere near Indian Springs where Yucca Flat and Las Vegas are almost equidistant.

At night, if you stare off toward the old open-air atomic testing grounds, not a pinpoint of light cuts through the black desert vista. Forty miles back toward Las Vegas, however, the sky is a fireball of reflected neon, as if some things never change.

Laxalt is considered one of the truly nice guys in the Senate, with the classic Senate personality of a man who can attack a collegue relentlessly on an issue and still be friends with him the next day.

A case in point is his relationship with Baker. Laxalt, as Reagan's man during the campaign, used the Panama Canal treaty to cut up Baker's presidential campaign and helped block his consideration as a vice predential nominee. Afterward, when some conservatives were pushing Laxalt to challenge Baker as majority leader, Laxalt nominated him instead and the vote was unanimous.

If it hadn't been for Nevada, Laxalt might have been vice president himself. Reagan wanted him. But all that glaring neon, and the people who operate in its 24-hour shadows, made too many Republicans nervous.

Laxalt was born in the north, in Reno, nine years before gambling was legalized in 1931. In the early days the casinos were little mom-and-pop operations, a single blackjack table, a wheel and a few card games.

By 1950, when Laxalt first ran for district attorney in Ormsby County, all that was changing. The neon began to bloom in the south, in Vegas, and mom and pop gave way to big daddy, son of godfather.

Bugsy Siegel became a local folk hero and prominent businessman. The state changed and its politics did, too.

By 1966, when Laxalt was finishing a term as lieutenant governor and preparing to enter the governor's mansion, the FBI was hot after the mob for skimming untaxed profits off the top of their casino operations. In late 1966, superdaddy, Howard Hughes, beginning his last vagabond, reclusive years, moved into the top two floors of the Desert Inn. His rooms were hermetically sealed against germs he feared.

Hughes never came out. As Christmas of 1966 neared, Moe Dalitz, the old Cleveland racketeer who ran the Desert Inn, tried to move Hughes out to make room for the usual holiday high rollers. Hughes simply bought the Desert Inn.

Hughes quickly began buying everying in sight -- the airport, an airliner, land, and six casino hotels -- without ever making the personal appearance required by the State Gaming Commission.

They were heady years for the governor, a sheepherder's son now dealing with an exotic billionaire, but years with headaches, too. Laxalt saw Hughes as a man who could move Nevada beyond the mob. But there were all those idiosyncrasies -- the hermit bit, the childlike scrawled notes that went out from his Desert Inn hideaway indicating that Laxalt was Hughes' man, that he "can be brought to a point where he will just about entrust his entire political future to his relationship with us," that Hughes might even decide to make him president.

Laxalt writes all that off now with a single eight-letter western expletive that starts with bull. The notes were "crazy," the rantings of a man who was losing his sanity.

In Nevada, Hughes was buying more than property. He started the Silver Slipper fund, a $600,000 cash horde of $100 bills stacked as high as a croupier's eye. He began trying to buy politicians, too.

There are no indications that Laxalt, who was not running, got any of the money, but later Watergate testimony indicated the Silver Slipper money was flowing all over the place -- $50,000 in cash to Hubert Humphrey, $25,000 in cash to Robert Kennedy's campaign after Kennedy was assassinated.

The most famous contribution was $100,000 neatly stacked in $100 bills in a suitcase, that went to Richard Nixon's campaign. The cash floated nervously around for years, sititng in Bebe Rebozo's safe in Florida much of the time, before Hughes' lawyers finally got it back and dumped the same suitcase on the Watergate investigators' table. "Here's your goddam money," the lawyer told the senators. All that came out after Laxalt quit. But there were troubles enough while he was in office. How could Laxalt's gaming commission give six casino license's to a man who would not appear? How did Nevada even know Howard Hughes was alive?

Laxalt never met Hughes.But he called him once to find out if he was alive. He recounts that conversation in still-reverent terms.

"I know how much you value your privacy, Mr. Hughes, and I don't want to invade it, the governor said to the billionaire. "I don't need to meet you, as much as I would like to someday."

"I'd like to meet you someday, too, governor," the voice replied. "But, frankly, right now I look like a cadaver."

Laxalt announced to the world that Howard Hughes was alive, if not well.

At Lathrop Wells, along Rte. 95 where the desert begins in earnest, there is a gas station with a sign that says GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS and directs you to the local whorehouse where full satisfaction of all whims is guaranteed. The sign carries no modern euphemisms about massage parlors. Prostitution is legal by local option .

Laxalt looks exactly like a western senator or nothing like one at all, depending on your perceptions.

The steel-gray hair gives way to a handsome Marlboro man's face, a banker's huge cigar, a perfectly fitted pinstriped Wall Streeter's suit and, finally, lizard skin cowboy boots.

In 1979 he appeared on the steps of the Capitol with the head of the Moral Majority, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and told the crowd he had started carrying the Bible as a child. Laxalt is a sponsor of the family protection act, a conservative proposal that would end federal involvement in a host of programs from education to child abuse cases.

Some Nevadans say Laxalt is a newcomer to the "social issues" side of the conservative cause.

"When he was governor, this Moral Majority stuff was not around," said Mary Gojack during her 1980 Democratic challenge to Laxalt. "He was kind of a decent, middle-of-the road governor . . . who supported the Equal Rights Amendment." Now in his new ambassadorial role in the Senate, Laxalt looks uneasily at the day when one of those litmus-test convervative issues like abortion might come head to head with a more basic Reagan program like economic reform. "I'll be the bridge," Laxalt says of a conflict he hopes doesn't arrive.

But he spells out his priorities clearly: Nevada first, the West second, "protecting Reagan's flanks" third. Moral Majority issues are not on the list.

"Most of us feel we should address ourselves to the economy and defense first," Laxalt said shortly after the election, "and not distract ourselves on the social issues on the front end."

Tonopah is a little town that sits high in a mountain pass, 6,000 feet above sea level, halfway between Vegas and Laxalt's home. From the town you can gaze forever in all directions, out over empty sagebrush lands. The Air Force wants to build part of the MX missile project near here. At first the town fathers, conservative and patriotic, were all for it. Then they heard how much land the missile project would chew up, how it would draw down the water table, and now they are vigorously opposed.

The word in Nevada is that Laxalt is going to use his influence with Reagan to kill the MX. Strange irony that would be -- the superconservative Nevadan pulling the plug on a Pentagon pet. But Laxalt, after all, is a study in paradox.

Publicly, he is mum about the missile program. But his constituents, tired of the federal invasion that occupies more than half their state, don't want it.

And Laxalt, whose western candor and openness are disarming, makes no bones about using his clout to help his constituents.

In Las Vegas, the FBI has a strike force aimed at organized crime and IRS agents flood the neon canyons in search of skimmers and dealers who don't report their tips. Laxalt says he is going to use his influence on the Appropriations Committee to get the feds to back off. "I don't want special treatment," Laxalt says, "just normal treatment, without the targeting and harassment." The feds think the situation is not normal in Nevada.

He also wants the feds to back away from environmental action at Lake Tahoe, a stateline resort where casino high-rises sprout on the Nevada side and A-frame vacation homes are the rule on the California side. Laxalt says development should be left to local control; the Californians say more casino development on the Nevada side would threaten the already polluted late.

Outside Hawthorne, a little town dominated by a munitions factory, perfectly symmetrical eerie dirt mounds stretch off for miles as if some sci-fi insect monsters had landed here and planted their young. In Hawthorne none of the locals will say what is in the strange mounds, but they guess they are surrounded by the Army's buried explosives.

There is no way to understand a Nevada senator, to put him in perspective, without understanding the western land problem and legalized gamgling.

The so-called Sagebrush Rebellion began in Nevada, with the first lawsuits that would force the return of federal lands to state government. Roughly half the land in the West is owned by the federal government.

The Sagebrush Rebellion was a highly emotional, almost warlike issue. But Laxalt says the rebellion is over now, the war won in the western Republican landslide of 1980.

"The Sagebrush Rebellion was a cry for help," Laxalt says. "We felt like outsiders, like colonists. The election was a political message, one we are taking as a mandate to free up the West."

The freeing will start now, the senator says, first over in the Interior Department, where his friend, Secretary James G. Watt, is a more than sympathetic westerner. The land will be returned in small chunks at first, Laxalt says. The demand for a wholesale land return was a symbolic cry, something like the Moral Majority thing, and you have to be pragmatic.

You have to be pragmatic about the gamblers, too. Gambling is legal in Nevada. Gamblers are businessmen. Gamblers contribute to political campaigns, just like other businessmen. The gamblers had a fund-raiser for Laxalt in 1980. Moe Dalitz, who lists his occupation as a contractor now, gave $1,000. So did a lot of other Nevadans, whose FBI files track back for decades.

Laxalt knows this bothers outsiders, hampers any hope he has for reaching higher than the Senate.

But in Nevada, he says, Moe dalitz is a businessman, maybe one who a long time ago ran some Prohibition booze in Cleveland, but that doesn't count much against him in the mores of Nevada.

As you approach Carson City and Reno, the two towns Laxalt calls home 450 miles north of Las Vegas, a mountain spur road takes you to Mark Twain's old stomping grounds, Virginia City. Abandoned silver mines cling to rocky cliffs and the Bucket of Blood Saloon perches over a chasm that opens up to a panorama of high plateau and then far-off mountains.

This is the old Nevada, the Nevada Laxalt knew as a kid before the neon invasion. Off to the east, beyond the mountains, the mining industry is picking up. Prospectors found a microscopic gold mine there recently, with gold so fine it couldn't be seen with the naked eye.

Laxalt gets whimsical about the Nevada of his youth. With new technology and an opening of the federal lands, the senator hopes for a resurgence of some of his state's old economic standbys -- mining, grazing.

But it is gambling that provides the real gold in Nevada, that pays the bills without a sales tax or an income tax.

Laxalt, now 58, says he sees life and politics in more grays and far fewer blacks and whites than he did ten years ago when the odds were 1,000-to-1 against his plunging ever again into the maelstrom of Nevada's strange politics.

If he has an unusual breed of constituents, he finds them easier to deal with than "the gray flannel suit corporate types" that run the major industries and influence the politics in most of his fellow-senators' states.

"When I'm dealing with my constituents," he says, "I don't have to wait for boardroom decisions and wade through all that corporate structure to get answers. Frankly, the casino owners are damned glad to be able to deal within a legal framework."

If that bothers outsiders, so be it. Laxalt, like many of the new wave Republicans taking control in Washington, figures he has reached a point in life where he can take life the way it is and shrug it off if others don't do the same.

Laxalt says he watches other senators dealing with hardball corporate types in their states and figures he has it better.

"I have less trouble dealing with my businessmen than a senator from Michigan dealing with the auto industry," Laxalt says.

"Less," he adds for emphasis. "Far less."