At the end of his second year in college, Rep. Phillip Cane (R-Ill.) got a job on a barge in order to pay the tuition and board for his third year. Crane had a very difficult time.

The man who mocked him as a sissy college boy and gave him the dirtiest jobs was the barge's skipper. So there was no appeal.

On the last day of Crane's employment, be made an important decision. The skipper ordered him into his cabin and pointed to a large, dirty brass spittoon.

"Take it below," he said. "Clean it up and bring it back here before you draw your pay."

Crane still remembers that the object he held in his arms was so filthy that he could hardly bear to look at it. Clutching it as he would his way down the spiral stairs from the skipper's cabin, it suddenly occurred to him that all he had to do to get even was to pretend to trip and lose the spittoon overboard. He almost did it.

But then he had another idea, and he is rather proud of it, even now, over 20 years later.

"That man wanted to prove to himself that I wasn't any good and there was only one way to show him that I was as good or better than he.

"I took that thing below deck and I got to work and when I brought it back to him at the end of the day, that spittoon was as clean and shiny and sparkling a piece of brass as any man ever laid eyes on. I showed him."

Crane, the first to announce his candidacy for president in 1980, compares himself to Jimmy Carter because Carter also entered the presidential race very early. But there is another similarity. Carter ran for the presidency like the Little Engine That Could. As the incident of the spittoon suggests, Crane too will refuse to be beaten.

I'm not sure how well Crane will do on television, which will surely make or break his candidacy. Television favors people who are relatively "soft" in expressing their views. Crane is "hard," much more so than Ronald Reagan, who was until recently, his political and ideological idol.

Crane has not yet learned to express his conservative views with Reagan's good humor, self-depreciation and great care not to offend.

Also, Crane is a good deal more intelligent than Reagan and much more well read. That may not be an advantage. Crane has gotten where he is today by saying what he thinks, and that, too, may hurt him once he steps outside the circle of right-wing organizations whose members are prepared to applaud him before he opens his mouth.

What Crane talks about is standard conservative doctrine: Liberals are the enemy because they want bigger government and stronger presidents, while conservatives regard the role of government as that of "controlled servants."

I don't think he's right about what liberals think. And in any event, those generalizations don't seem to me to be very important. One of Crane's potential weaknesses is that he has given too much thought to ideology and not enough thought to the pragmatic. What would he do about inflation or the Middle East or other problems for which ideology suggests no answer?

But 47-year-old Crane is young, and he will learn. If I were Ronald Reagan I would not want to look behind me.