Consecutive activists were divided in mood and strategy yesterday as they tried to sort out their options after an election year in which their favorite candidates were defeated.

The official word from the sponsors of the fourth annual Conservative Political Action Conference was that a third-party option was "on the back burner" for the time being. This was the phrase used by M. Stanton Evans, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and by Jeffrey Kane, chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom.

"We really don't have the reasons historically to move in a third-party direction at this point," Kane said at a press conference. "We simply don't have a leader to do it."

But the sentiment of the 550 delegates attending the conference appeared to be divided on the issue.

One of the loudest round of applause of the day came when William A. Rusher, publisher of National Review, said the Republican Party was unable to function effectively as a conservative force because of compromises that had to be made within the GOP with party liberals.

"It [the GOP] has no more chance of controlling this country than the women's club of Newport, R.I.," Rusher said.

Other conservatives gave other counsel.

Patrick Buchanan, a speechwriter in the Nixon administration who is now a syndicated columnist, said that conservatives should work for candidates of their persuasion within both the Republican and Democratic primaries. Buchanan's immediate focus was the 1978 elections, when, he said, a number of "fine conservatives" would face re-election in both parties.

Buchanan argued that conservatives and Republicans should free themselves from the "big business image" of the GOP by attacking big business when it bought favor through lobbyists, engaged in corrupt practices or promoted trade with the Soviet Union. He also suggested that the best way to deal with the Nixon administration scandals was to forget them and go on to other issues.

Buchanan recalled an incident where an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, early in the New Deal, had been asked the best way to reconcile FDR's deficit spending programs with a promise he made in Pittsburgh during the campaign to cut the budget. The adviser replied that Roosevelt should deny he was ever in Pittsburgh.

"I suggest we deny we were ever in Pittsburgh for the previous eight years," Buchanan said.

A conservative pollster, Arthur Finkelstein, spelled out what the Republican Party means to people as reflected in his own surveys.He said it stood for big business, for the rich, for Richard Nixon and for Watergate. One conservative respondent, asked what comes to mind when the party name is mentioned, responded, "Evil."

Furthermore, said Finkelstein, the Watergate scandal had cost the GOP the one clear advantage it had over the Democrats - the perception by voters that it was the more honest of the two parties.

Nevertheless, he counseled against third-party option, saying this would succeed only in drawing conservatives out of both parties, creating a weak satellite party and leaving the major parties more liberal.

All of the speakers, whatever their view of a new party, referred to the contradiction of conservatives experiencing defeat at the polls or, in Ronald Reagan's case, at the Republican convention while surveys show the country becoming increasingly conservative.

Rusher and Buchanan, among others, said this was because conservatives were insufficiently mobilized. Finkelstein suggested the contradiction is more apparent than real. He said a majority of Americans is conservative on broad principles but votes according to party habit and on questions which personally affect them, such as whether the garbage is picked up on time.

As the conference wound up its second day yesterday with an awards banquet, it also became apparent that the conservative movement is still seeking a new leader. He could well turn out to be the old leader most of these delegates supported for President in 1976, former California Gov. Regan.

The conference climaxes tonight with an emotional tribute to Reagan, who narrowly lost to President Ford at Knasas City and who already appears to be gearing up for 1980.

If Reagan wants to run, said Evans, "90 per cent of the people here would support him."