THE ARKANSAS Republican Party, undiscouraged by a long string of statewide defeats, led all the nation by being the first party anywhere in or out of the country to choose real, live, identifiable delegates to the 1980 national conventions. In the course of achieving this breakthrough, the Arkansas Republicans took a stroll down memory lane and also took presidential candidate John Connally for a ride.

Twelve convention delegates were selected from party meetings in each of the state's four congressional districts. Unlike Iowa, where the large voter turnout still has most analysts baffled, the Arkansas event was by invitation only. Each of Arkansas' 75 counties had two representatives to the delegate-selection meeting: the county chairman and one rank-and-file member designated by the county executive committee. An additional 31 delegates were apportioned to those counties where the 1978 Republican gubernatorial candidate (who received only 36.7 percent of the vote) had won more than 2,500 votes. Nobody else was eligible to particpate, regardless of past dedication or present devotion to the Grand Old Party. Perhaps this is merely further evidence of the nostalgia craze, but it's exactly the way delegates to national conventions were almost always chosen in earlier times -- before the rash of reforms.

The results of the limited balloting last weekend left former governor Ronald Reagan with six of the 12 delegates, Sen. Howard Baker with five, and one delegate uncommitted. John Connally was blanked in the proceedings, and it isn't as though the former Democrat had been indifferent to Arkansas Republican leaders. Less than a month before the voting, Mr. Connally had provided a "room, board and tuition" weekend for approximately 225 prominent state Republicans, including spouses, at Fairfield Bay, a resort on beautiful Greers Ferry Lake in Arkansas. But these Arkansas Republicans are an independent lot. Apparently they withstood the special Connally charm and magnetism, as well as hospitality and left him holding an empty bag on voting day. It's almost enough to make Mr. Connally into a reformer.