Howard H. Baker Jr., one of the losers of Campaign '80, was sipping a gin and tonic in his Senate minority leader's office the other day and talking about how we have to change the system that has made him what he is today.

"There must be a better way -- a more sensible way -- of picking our presidents," he said.

Robert S. Strauss, who as President Carter's campaign manager appears to be one of the winners of Campaign '80, was sitting in his Watergate apartment a few days later and saying much the same thing.

"It takes too long and it costs too much money," Strauss said. "We've got to fix the system."

And Gerald R. Ford, one of the nonstarters of Campaign '80, concurs. "We will have 35 primaries in 1980," the former president told an American Enterprise Institute forum last December. "I think there are too many, they are too expensive, and they take much too much time from the candidates."

The system. It seems, at this point, to be giving us Carter vs. Ronald Reagan for 1980, though both still have challengers who are mounting last stands in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. But in the midspring hiatus, a midsummer, post-conventionlike malaise has set in. Delegate-rich front-runners cannot help looking past Pennsylvania to the fall campaign. And some of the losers and the winners and the nonrunners are looking past the fall and talking about trying to do something about the helter-skelter way in which we nominate our presidential standardbearers.

The system needs to be changed. There have been proposals for a national primary and for regional primaries, and even a few private longings for a return to the smoke-filled rooms.But before studying the proposals for change, it is worth reflecting upon the system that has brought us this far in 1980.

The system that produces America's presidential nominees is the sum of two unequal parts.

First, it forces the candidates to sell retail, peddling their presidential wares like Tupperware in every living room and lodge hall in the few small states that have come to dominate the first stage of America's presidential politics. Here a relative handful of the nation's voters do much of the weeding of the presidential garden patch, as the rest of America just sits and watches and waits.

Then the system forces the candidates who survive to shift abruptly and start selling wholesale. Primaries of larger states come in rapid-fire succession, often two or three at a time. Suddenly there are just a few days from Tuesday to Tuesday to do the sort of campaigning that consumed months of war-gaming and handshaking back in the Phase One days of Iowa and New Hampshire.

But by the time this second stage begins, the process already has gone on far too long. The present system encourages America's presidential aspirants to commit their natural political acts unnaturally early.

For reasons of local egos and economics, politicians in a few states decided that 1980 was not soon enough for the 1980 campaign to start. And so the candidates were enticed to compete in 1979 in meaningless beauty contests at caucuses and conventions in Florida and Maine, not to mention all those straw votes at those incessant political dinners in Iowa -- all of them contributing not one whit to the presidential nominating process, selecting not one delegate to the national party conventions, but all carrying a burdensome price.

Recall for a moment where Campaign '80 began -- in Florida, in the fall of 1979.

Republicans were holding a convention and there was going to be a straw vote.And so, in the name of momentum, not delegates, John B. Connally outspent his fellow Republicans, investing $300,000 to win a meaningless straw vote. He finished third.

Flordia's Democrats did it differently. Their meaningless effort took the form of statewide caucuses. The draft-Kennedys spent $200,000 and the Carter-Mondales spent anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 (depending on whose estimates are believed). They did all this to lure just 50,000 voters to the polls -- less than 2 percent of those eligible. The candidates wound up spending at least $9 per vote.

By the time the first primary of 1980 ended in New Hampshire, the Democratic candidates had spent at least $11.7 million and the Republicans $46.2 million, with Reagan and Connally having spent about $12 million each. And most of the 1980 campaign was still to come.

There is some good, as well as bad, about the present system.

The best thing, perhaps is that it showed in 1980 that a John Connally, regardless of the merits of his policies, could not put a lock on the Republican nomination simply because he had the key to the boardrooms and bank vaults of corporate America.

Connally was the unabashed candidate of the Fortune 500. He got big money from big business and he spent it in a big way. He was not about to bother retailing door-to-door; let the political merchant class do that. Connally's plan was to buy his way into America's living rooms, entering by the television tube, not the front door.

He raised a quick $10 million and spent a quicker $12 million. His money got him a total of one delegate.

What is bad about the present system is that the Howard Bakers find it increasingly difficult to mount a fullfledged campaign for the nomination. Baker was a highly qualified candidate for the job, but he was highly employed. He could not be out retailing door-to-door for most of a year before the first delegate was selected.

The politically unemployed, like George Bush and Ronald Reagan (and even John Conally), could do that. One of the politically employed, Rep. Philip M. Crane, did retail his way through Iowa and New Hampshire -- and he missed most of the meetings and votes of his House Ways and Means Committee in the process. But across the Capitol, in the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Bob Dole opted to stay with his duties in this year of energy tax legislation, and his campaigning was sharply curtailed accordingly.

Baker could not afford to be an absentee leader. The failure of his campaign was by no means due only to that -- he neglected his campaign organization, chose a poorly qualified campaign staff and made strategic errors as well -- but it is also true that he was severely hurt by his inability to spend those early days on the hustings.

Now, not surprisingly, he is among the advocates of change.

"The way the system is now, you have to be unemployed to run for president," he says. "We have got to change the system so that running for president does not mean that you have to try to get into everyone's living rooms in Iowa and New Hampshire before the election -- like Jimmy Carter did in '76 and George Bush did this year."

In 1976, one presidential hopeful who ran early and withdrew early returned to the U.S. Senate and promptly introduced a bill to scrap the existing system and replace it with six regional primaries.

The senator subsequently was transformed from a loser of '76 into a winner of '76 by hitching a ride on Carter's bandwagon. But this has not altered Walter Mondale's enthusiasm for changing the system by which he is once again becoming the Number Two beneficiary, according to a spokesman for the vice president.

Mondale's proposal is one of a number of bills seeking to change the system that have been introduced and reintroduced in Congress in recent years. The proposals all involve consolidation of the process -- either into a single national primary election or into a series of regional primaries.

The proposals have proliferated as though in direct response to the increase in the number of primaries (there were 17 primaries in 1968 compared to this year's 35). Each state now determines whether it will choose its delegates through a primary or local caucuses or a convention, or a mix. Some proposals for change would require all states to conduct primaries -- a mandating that seems questionable, but would be legal if approved by Congress, according to Austin Raney of the American Enterprise Institute. Other proposals would allow the option to remain with the states. i

Each plan has its variations and each variation has its drawbacks.

The national primary concept, whose advocates have included Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), would certainly provide a uniform campaign standard. But it would give great advantage to the candidate who starts from a position of being widely known and well-financed, especially the incumbent. Emphasis would be on merchandising politics and media campaigns. And there would be no chance for voters to assess how the candidates perform under the up-and-down rigors that exist to extreme in the present system.

Regional primary proposals range from the Mondale proposal, later picked up by Rep. Charles Bennett (D-Fla.), to hold six closed regional primaries at two-week intervals during the spring, to a plan by Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) for five closed regional primaries held at one-month intervals.

These proposals would provide sufficient uniformity and consolidation of the process. But they also would tend to encourage sectionalism, producing winners with strong regional ties but lacking broad-based national acceptability.

Another proposal, introduced by two congressmen who ran and lost, Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), the liberal hopeful of 1976, and John Ashbrook (R-Ohio), the conservative challenger of 1972, would establish four primary dates, each a month apart, and would have each state choose one of the four as its primary election day.

This plan would eliminate the danger of sectionalism that exists in the regional plans, but it could produce a crazy-quilt pattern of election geography that could place undue strain on campaign travel costs and campaign time.

Faced with all of these alternatives, Sen. Baker is pushing still one more. He is urging a series of regional primaries, with the states being grouped roughly according to time zones. This would produce regions cutting across traditional sectional lines -- New Hampshire, New York and South Carolina would vote the same day. It would offer the economies of time and money that come with campaigning within a region, radio and newspaper communications often reach across state lines within regions.

And it would offer the assurance that no single newspaper could dominate an important prenomination contest the way the Manchester Union-Leader exerts its right-wing bias in New Hampshire and the Des Moines Register exerts its balanced but nevertheless overbearing influence in the Iowa caucuses.

If the state groupings were small enough, with the nation divided into perhaps six north-south regions, it would provide an adequate check against the threat that a corporate-rich John Connally type of candidate could simply buy his way into the nomination. And it would provide a sufficiently tortuous test track to measure the performance of those who would be our president.

Baker's time zone plan makes a lot of sense. And among those who say they are receptive to the idea is Strauss, Carter's campaign manager.

"That is the sort of thing that we ought to be talking about," Strauss said, adding that he may well make a formal recommendation of his own once the campaign is over. "We need some kind of grouping of the primaries, a mix of states . . . And we need to get rid of those early conventions and caucuses. You know, it's tragic that a capable man like Howard Baker would be out of the race so early."

To assure that individual states will not continue to hold meaningless early beauty contests, however, will require more than legislation. It will require strong partisan and even bipartisan persuasion of the party leaders of the various states for the national good.

And there is one positive aspect of the present system that would not be lost in such reform -- it would not discourage the emergence of a future John B. Anderson. This year, Anderson captured the imagination of the politically disenchanted and at the same time became the idealists' idea of a realist. This had nothing to do with the system, but perhaps plenty to do with the fact that Anderson was the candidate with nothing to lose.

He was never close enough to be in danger of blowing his chance at the GOP nomination, and he alone among the candidates of 1980 adopted a posture of saying precisely what he thinks and responding to sincere questions with straightfoward answers. So Anderson came out for the Soviet grain embargo in Iowa while all of his more-conservative fellow Republicans were deep-sixing their hardline principles in pursuit of the farm vote. By the time he stood before the New Hampshire gun owners and came out for controls on small handguns -- while all of the other candidates were doing their Great-White-Hunter-cum-Wyatt-Earp chest thumpings -- his special place in American politics was assured.

Not all who have run in 1980 want to change the system in 1984.

"I'm against changing the system to regional primaries or anything like that," George Bush said in February, well after his come-from-nowhere victory in the Iowa caucuses catapulted him from an asterisk to a shooting star.

"Let's face it. I never would have gotten out of the pack in another system. The system we have now makes it possible for an underdog like me to work hard at it and win."

So Bush is not ready to join the ranks of such winners and losers as Baker and Mondale and Ford and Strauss and Udall and Ashbrook -- all of whom favor shifting to some sort of regional primary system.

But despite his concerns, a change to a regional primary system based loosely along time zone divisions would not make it impossible for a Jimmy Carter of 1976 or a George Bush of 1980 to emerge from political obscurity.

It would, instead, go a long way toward assuring that the candidacies of future front-runners would be built upon foundations that are broader-based and deeper than handshakes and door-knocking and the retailing of Tupperware.

EPILOGUE: Weeks after Bush has staked out his position in favor of the status quo, another view is heard in the headquarters of the candidate.

"The system needs to be changed," says James A. Baker III, who was Ford's 1976 campaign manager and now does the same job for Bush. "I just don't think it is right to give 25,000 people in one small place the inordinate influence they have today. A George Bush could still win in a regional system."

When the campaign manager is told that his position puts him in disagreement with his own candidate, he responds with admirable dexterity.

"Oh well," he says, "I didn't always agree with President Ford in 1976 either."