Rep. James Johnson (RColo.) had come a long way, baby, with his campaign to kill federal subsidies for tobacco growers.

Since he first argued over a month ago that it is schizophrenic for the government to subsidize tobacco growers while at the same time spending money to warn against the health effects of smoking. Johnson had received what Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.) daily called "considerable publicity." There had been dozens of news stories, network TV coverage and support from HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr.

But Monday, when it came time for Johnson to offer his farm bill amendment ending the $44 million a year in tobacco price supports, Johnson announced he wouldn't.

What caused his fire for the proposal to go up in smoke?

House members from tobacco growing states winked knowingly and said Johnson had been "beet-en down."

Johnson represents one of the largest sugar beet growing districts in the country. Sugar growers are in trouble because the bottom has fallen out of the world market and sugar that sold for 60 cents a pound a few years ago is selling for 8 to 10 cents this year, while it costs 13 cents a pound to produce. Without government support, domestic sugar growers contend, they will be driven out of business by foreign producers.

Though the tobacco state members demur at putting it in such crude terms, they told Johnson their support for a sugar subsidy depended on his dropping his crusade against tobacco subsidies.

"We sweetened the pot, Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.) said. "He wanted help on his sugar problem. We wanted help on tobacco. We convinced him to modify his position.

Rep. Walter Jones (D-N.C.), chairman of the tobacco subcommittee, assured Johnson he would hold hearings on tobacco supports if he lessened his opposition. Tobacco state members also agreed they would not object if Johnson offered an amendment to knock out some $24 million in foreign tobacco sales under the Food for Peace plan.

"There was no direct connection between support for the sugar subsidy which passed the House Friday, but indirectly we tried to reason with him that it would be better if all of us in trouble hung together rather than apart," Joseph said.

Jones "had a conversation" with Horace Godfrey, a former Agriculture Department administrator from North Carolina, who now lobbies for Florida, Lousiana and Texas sugar cane growers.

Godfrey said. "I just told him (Johnson) we don't want to make the tobacco boys mad at us."

Godfrey also acknowledged he made sure the "60 to 70 sugar growers in here last week" talked to Johnson.

"We talked about those things," Johnson acknowledged. "It's nice to give me all that credit. But I don't know what I had to trade . . . when Horace Godfrey came and said I could hurt the sugar program I was laughing because I said look at all those Democrats from sugar growning states. Who's going to vote against them?"

Yesterday Johnson offered his amendment to knock out some $24 million in the sale of subsidized tobacco under the Food for Peace program.

He said on the floor the amendment was "being opposed because it represents the first tiny inroad into the isolated, sacrosanct world of tobacco subsidies."

He called tobacco "cannon fodder for cancer" and said 890,000 people could be fed with the $24 million.

Natcher was enraged. "We don't produce any sugar beets in my home county," he shouted. "But the 20 states that produced tobacco marched down the aisle for the sugar bill. When sugar is in trouble my people are concerned."

Johnson's amendment was watered down to say only that food and fiber should be a priority for sales under the Food for Peace program.

That passed 259 to 151.