On the Saturday before the New Hampshire primary, Gary Hart, dressed lumberman style, threw an ax. It landed square in the center of a stump -- bull's-eye! Hart flexed his suspenders, beamed for the cameras -- and probably beamed even more that night when the networks aired film of his feat. They had left something out: Hart had missed his first shot.

Media conspiracy buffs will be excused for concluding that the networks were intent on promoting Hart's candidacy -- if only to inject some drama into what was then a runaway race by Walter F. Mondale. Hardly. A more likely explanation is that the shot of Hart's bull's-eye was the perfect pictorial representation of the way the Hart campaign was going at the time. He was coming on strong, doing everything right and would go on to win the New Hampshire primary in a walk. The second throw told that story; the first did not.

Something like that happened in the last week to President Reagan -- only in reverse. For Reagan, his dismal performance in the debate with Mondale provided the perfect "image" to show what some had been saying all along: Reagan is not up to the job. Until the Louisville debate, President Reagan could throw only bull's-eyes. He was renowned as the Teflon Candidate who was virtually immune to criticism. His gaffes rolled right off him. Even serious foreign policy setbacks like the terrorist bombings in Lebanon, seemed to be quickly forgotten by the public.

Why? There are two explanations. The first has to do with performance. To the chagrin of his critics, the president really has been able to accomplish much of what he said he would do. The economy is cooking, inflation is relatively low and abroad America is standing tall -- whatever that means. Much of this trick has been turned with the sort of luck a gambler would kill for.

When it comes to inflation, for instance, Reagan had the good fortune to preside at a time when OPEC collapsed. The price of oil fell from about $36 a barrel to $27 -- and Ronald Reagan had nothing to do with that. (Never mind that inflation is running at about the rate that once compelled Richard Nixon to impose wage and price controls.)

The same luck has held in foreign policy. In a little less than four years, the Soviet Union has had three leaders, meaning an almost continous power vacuum in the Kremlin and an apparent policy paralysis. The Soviets, for instance, have kept the Nicaraguan Sandinistas at arms length, and have been in no mood for foreign adventures. The revolving door in the Kremlin has provided Reagan with the perfect election-year rationale for his dilatory pursuit of arms reduction talks: There was no one for him to talk with.

A second ingredient of the Reagan Teflon phenomenon was the looks and persona of the man himself.

Once again, words -- mere words -- were overwhelmed by what the American people saw on television. Here was a hearty, likeable man -- and vigorous to boot. Mean? Unfair? Just look at that face? Old? Tired? Just watch him chop wood, pump iron or ride a horse over the Santa Barbara hills. An old Chinese proverb says that a picture is worth a thousand words, but that was before the age of television. Now a picture is worth any amount of words. You believe what you see.

And what we all saw in March 1981 seemed straight out of the movies. The president was shot, rushed to the hospital -- and saved. This was luck on an epic scale -- a matter of inches. Sure, he conducted himself well and with a bonhomie that has become his trademark, but sheer luck played an enormous role. After the assassination attempt everyone perceived the president as lucky. It's one thing to be lucky; it's even better to be perceived as lucky.

The Louisville debate changed some of that. It may not have demolished Reagan's image, but it certainly tarnished it. But that debate, officially the first, was really the second. The first was over the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut. The way Reagan handled that foreshadowed what was to happen in Louisville.

Initially, Reagan got a break. Mondale, respectful of authority as usual and not trusting his own instincts, huddled with his advisers and merely said he would support whatever retaliatory measures the president initiated. A day later, though, Mondale came out smoking: This was the third bombing of an American installation in Lebanon in two years. Once again, security measures were inadequate. This time the Marine guards had been removed and a security gate was left lying on the ground. He demanded explanations.

How did the president respond? Well, it depended on the day. He said these things just happen and cannot be avoided. He trivialized the lack of security by comparing it to the renovation of a kitchen. Then he blamed the Carter administration, falsely charging that it had so cut the CIA budget as to impair American intelligence gathering.

It was all too much -- patent nonsense that was, worse, contradictory and untrue. The president had to get on the phone to Carter himself and virtually apologize and then he had to listen to the testimony of innumerable experts that it was the Nixon and Ford administrations that had cut the CIA budget -- and Jimmy Carter who had started to fatten it.

Taken by itself, Reagan's meandering and unconvincing effort to both explain and explain away the Beirut bombing might not have amounted to much. But this is an election year and it was to Mondale's advantage to keep the issue alive. This he did. And, in fact, it was still an issue when both he and Reagan arrived in Louisville for their debate. The president had had a bad couple of weeks. Mondale wanted to give him another one.

And the president cooperated. As good as Mondale was, Reagan was worse. There on the very television screen on which he had built his political career, the president proceeded to flesh out and confirm -- temporarily, at least -- some of the most critical things being said against him. It was said that he is detached: he looked detached. It is said that he's not so smart: He didn't look very smart. It's said that he's old, that he tires easily, that he's really only a part-time president now and what he'll be two or three years from now, God only knows: He looked tired, old and his closing remarks were something new under the sun: stream of unconsciousness.

There it was -- the picture that confirmed what some had been saying. It was Gary Hart's bull's-eye, with the ax coming the other way. It was George Romney saying he had been brainwashed in Vietnam, finally providing the press with the opportunity to write what up to then it could not: Romney was a bit slow on the uptake. It was all those things and more. Taken together with the Lebanon bombing, it was the end -- or at least an interruption -- of an incredible streak of luck. In politics, as in war, luck is the greatest gift.

But Reagan's bad luck was not over yet. The political spotlight moved to Philadelphia and the vice presidential debates between Vice President George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro. Lots of observers called it a draw and maybe it was. You can debate who won until the cows come home, but Robert Squier, the Democratic political consultant, was quick to say who lost: Ronald Reagan.

Of the four persons who had debated before a national television audience in October, Reagan was clearly the worst. Bush might have been hyper, preppy, fawning towards Reagan and not above a low blow or two, but he nevertheless performed better than his president did. Particularly when it came to foreign policy, he was in control of the facts. Morever, his sentences scanned.

The same is true of Ferraro. She was weak on foreign policy, but strong as a person -- and personable to boot. What she does not know, she does not know, but it is harder after Philadelphia to argue that she is clearly unqualified for the presidency. And her closing statement was probably the best of any candidate in any debate. Win, lose or draw, she performed better than Reagan did. So did they all.

Whether Mondale will be able to capitalize on Reagan's image breakdown remains to be seen. However triumphant he looks now, he remains the same man who nearly lost to Hart in the primaries and pooped his own party by announcing the appointment of Bert Lance at the very convention that nominated him for the presidency. As long as Mondale's gun has bullets, there's always the chance he'll shoot himself in the foot. As for the president, he is not without resources -- not the least of them being a cable-car-like tenacity that might enable him to appear vigorous in the next debate. In any event, he remains the incumbent, the economy is still healthy and for the moment no foreign policy crisis threatens. Things could be a lot worse.

Still, for Reagan, something has changed. His political world has been turned upside down. For the first time since his election, Reagan has lost control of his image. Once, image vanquished words. After Louisville, though, the White House said what you saw was not necessarily the whole picture. Reagan had been over-briefed. He was tired. Even, would you believe, he had not worn makeup and Mondale had. Suddenly, what you saw was not the way it was. Listen. Don't watch. For Reagan, so long the master of appearances, this is the worst of all luck -- to seem old when he needs to appear younger.

If the perception of age, not necessarily age itself, is now to be a factor, it will rob Reagan of his most formidable asset -- luck. He had, always, a magical quality about him -- a boundless, youthful optimism. He could make things happen. He had faith in his luck and so did the country, playing his table as it would a hot craps player, buying a piece of his action. Now some voters -- still a trickle -- are deserting his table, moving off to play with Mondale.

Today, we are told Ronald Reagan does not look so good. Commentators are talking about his age, his competency, the words underscoring the pictures. Things have changed for the worse for Ronald Reagan. Politics is sometimes like craps itself. When you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, youre not.

Age may have left Ronald Reagan with a cold hand.