"Ladies and gentlemen," said West Virginia Gov. John D. Rockfeller IV (D), "you have just a few minutes. Place your bets. Moynihan or Brusbee."

The delegates to the White House Conference on Balanced National Growth and Economic Development, who had labored or slumbored through their second full day of speeches and discussions, jammed the ballroom at the Sheraton-Park Hotel and buzzed in anticipation.

Ever since the program was announced, the debate between Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.N.Y.) and Georgia Gov. George Busbee (D) on " Beyond Sun Belt-Frost Belt," had promised the most fireworks in the four-day meeting.

For a few moments, there seemed a dreadful possibility that the spirit of compromise and consensus - so ardently promoted by the conference directors - might undermine the hopes for a little excitement.

Moynihan declared, with what seemed a straight face, that "we must not politicize the question of relative regional growth . . . It would be easy to do this, and calamitous."

Busbee responded that "fire and brimstone regionalism . . . is bunk, pure bunk . . . The South is ready to end this nonsense . . ."

Fortunatly, it turned out that neither man had really left his dagger at home.

Mohnihan, in a speech ranging from medieval Venice to Appalchia and may points in between , suggested slyly that since Busbee's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, was obviously not about to help the Northeast, he might at least take steps to stop hurting it.

"The federal government has for more esome time been making political decisions to induce development in the South grounds on which to do this," Moynihan said. "The most conspicous example is that of the heavy concentration of defense facilities in the South. I have had occasion to remark that our armed forces are clearly preparing to fight the next war in Nicaragua, or at least some place where it never freezes."

Saying that concentration resulted from a pattern of "congressional politics and presidential acquiescence which should be put behind us," Moynihan said brusquely: "It would be helpful if President Carter would so state."

Busbee passed on the issue of defense bases, and focused instead on a little amendment to last year's Housing and Community Development Act, passed, he said, when the South had "its eyes closed and its britches down."

Because of that amendment, the governor said, "more than 90 percent of the additional $600 million in community development block grants go North," and the wealthy Chicago suburb of Oak Park has its allotment quadrupled while Atlanta gets not one extra penny.

Except for a somewhat guilty smirk, Moynihan gave no sign that he was sponsor of the amendment.

The moment did not seem propitious, but nonetheless the senator pleaded for further federal funds to avert bankruptcy of New York City - a calamity which, he said, should it occur, would "be the only thing the 39th president is remembered for."

Like an Army chaplain, Busbee assured Moynihan that "we are sympathetic to the plight of New York City," but he pointedly noted that when New York was offering tuition-free college, "I was fighting and bleeding for money to start a statewide kindergarten program" in Georgia.

This is not a divorce proceeding," Busbee said. "You can't expect enough alimony to sustain the manner of life you've been accustomed to."

And on that friendly note, they parted.