If they ever make a movie called "The Ronald Reagan Story" -- and the biography of a poor boy who became a screen and soapbox idol could make a rich, entertaining film -- the opening scene, the vignette from which all the rest flows, would almost have to be this one:

On the ivy-covered campus of a small Midwestern college, the frosty quiet of a moonlit November night is broken by the chants of student demonstrators and an angry quarrel between the protesters and the school's trustees. On prearranged signal, the college bell begins to ring; students, faculty and townspeople, wearing coats over their pajamas, pour into the chapel for a mass meeting.

After introductory remarks from some upperclassmen, a tall, square-shouldered freshman steps to the fore and delivers an impassioned speech denouncing the trustees and the administration. At the end of his remarks, he solemnly demands that the college president resign -- and calls for a student strike until that non-negotiable demand is met.

This is a thoroughly radical idea for a conservative campus in the 1920s, but the moment is so electric and the spell of freshman Ronald Reagan's oratory so strong that the assemblage stands up and votes by acclamation to support the strike. And Reagan (as he would recall much later) stands there drinking in a lesson he would never forget -- that he is dynamite before an audience, a skillful performer who knows how to get the "feel" of a crowd, to communicate with people and win them to this side.

This dramatic scene was played out in real life at Eureka College in Eureka, Ill., on Nov. 27, 1928. It was Ronald Reagan's first political performance, and it turned out to be a stunning success for the brash freshman and his fellow rebels. A week after the student strike began, the trustees accepted the resignation of the college president and agreed to reconsider the financial and disciplinary decisions that had angered the protesters. The strike made headlines around the country -- and even got into The New York Times (The Washington Post, preoccupied with President-elect Hoover's impending inauguration, ignored the story).

More important, the experience advanced young Reagan's growing realization that his skill as a performer and communicator was the key to his future. The strike vote, Reagan said in his 1965 autobiography, "was heady wine . . . a beginning link in a later pattern." Just so. The ability to charm and, as he sometimes puts it, to "sell" an audience has been the rock on which Reagan has built his three media careers -- in radio, in Hollywood and in politics.

Politics has always involved "the need for showmanship," Reagan told The Hollywood Reporter at the start of his first campaign, and performance has always been the central element of his political style. Some politicians may rely on negotiation, on personal rapport with the electorate, on sheer hard work and a mastery of detail to achieve their aims. Reagan's impulse is to let others do all that while he awaits the right moment and then takes his case, via microphone and camera, to the mass audience. It is his basic formula -- learned that night in the college chapel in Illinois and later from three decades in radio, the movies and television -- and it is a formula that has almost always worked for him.

Reagan launched his political career in 1964, not by stuffing envelopes or running for the state Senate but with a nationally televised speech that immediately made him a top prospect for governor of California, the nation's biggest state. He won that office two years later, and revived the broadcast "fireside chat," turning it into a powerful political tool. In his first serious race for the presidency, in 1976, he lost the first five primaries -- and then turned to television, giving a pair of speeches that brought in more than a million dollars from contributors and helped carry the race for the GOP nomination all the way to the convention in Kansas City. This year, he responded to his surprise loss in the Iowa caucuses by changing strategy, entering two televised debates, and romping to victory in New Hampshire.

So it was exactly in character last week when Reagan, perceiving that his 1980 campaign was stalled, changed his position and decided that he would debate Jimmy Carter after all. Similarly, if the past is a guide, a President Reagan would probably rely on direct appeals to the nation even more than most previous presidents of the television age.

Reagan's personal confidence in his ability as a performer, his belief that he can talk his way to success, seems to be central to his self-esteem and his confident, optimistic view of the world. His reliance on this talent may explain his curious attitude toward criticism.

Reporters and politicians say that Reagan, as a governor and as a candidate, has been fairly thick-skinned as political people go, able to brush aside criticism of his competence or consistency. He doesn't even seem bothered by the insulting, but common, suggestion that he is too dumb to be president.

But the same man retains to this day a curious macho vanity about his appearance and his acting skill. He has been seriously near-sighted since childhood, but he has always tried to avoid wearing glasses in public. He writes reproving letters to reporters who suggest that he wears makeup, and bristles at critics who say he was never much of a actor. "They touch an exposed nerve," Reagan says.

Faced with a potential president whose basic style is performance, how is a votor to separate the actor from the real man beneath? It's not easy, is the quick answer, a response that should be accompanied by a warning to tread carefully. Some of the labels that have been hung on the candidate by friend and foe this year seem to reflect the theater of Ronald Reagan as much as the reality. What you see and hear, in short, may not always be what you get.

Reagan has been called a deep-seated, doctrinaire conservative. It is true he traded in his youthful liberalism for a new conservative policy about 30 years ago (Harry Truman was apparently the last Democratic presidential candidate he voted for), but it is not his way to be doctrinaire about anything -- at least not in the sense that he would let abstract principle get in the way of pragmatism or flexibility.

Still, he sounds like a flaming right-winger because of the high drama he brings to the business of politics and his zeal to give audiences -- which over the years have been quite conservative -- what they want to hear.

One type of politician, for example, might have said in 1975 that "there are sound arguments for and against federal aid to New York City, but I've decided to oppose it." Another might have been more blunt: "I'm against the New York bailout." But showman Reagan made the issue a matter of religious fervor: "I have included in my morning and evening prayers every day the prayer that the federal government not bail out New York." That sounds deep-seated, all right. This year, with the federal loan a fait accompli and big city votes at stake, he announced that he favors the bailout after all.

Reagan has been described as a small-town boy with an old-fashioned view of the world, and this, too, fits with the public personna. He did, in fact, spend his first 25 years in the Midwest; but he spent the next 45 in Los Angeles, and his curent political views were shaped there during the decades when that city was growing into one of the nation's largest metropolises. "At rock bottom, Reagan is still a boy from a small town in Illinois . . . but his idea of success was formed in California," said John Sears, a former Reagan political adviser.

Reagan's rhetoric may suggest a backward-looking, wistful nostalgia for the good old days -- but his biography suggests precisely the opposite. He has regularly demonstrated a willingness to ride the new wave. He was not the original pioneer in the field of sports broadcasting in the 1930s, but he was among the earliest settlers in that unknown new world. Two decades later, he was one of the first Hollywood stars to take a shot at the mysterious, threatening new phenomenon known as television. A decade later, he bacame one of the first to realize that, in a media-soaked nation, an actor's skills could carry somebody a long way in the related but unfamiliar realm of politics.

Reagan has been called a leisurely, even lazy worker who would treat the presidency as a 9-to-5 job. When he is motivated, though, he can work his head off. In Hollywood, his devotion to work -- both on the set and then, five or six nights a week, in the office of his union -- was legendary and probably contributed to the collapse of his first marriage.

Edward Langley, who traveled with Reagan when he was a roving spokesman for General Electric Co., remembers him as "a veritable bionic man, all stamina and drive," who routinely gave a dozen speeches a day and sometimes 20 or more. As governor and as a presidential candidate, he has delegated away a lot of chores, trusting his staff to handle functions like legislative analysis, hiring and firing, that other executives sometimes do for themselves. But on the things he considers important -- the crafting of a major speech, for example -- Reagan personally does the work and keeps at it until he considers it right. "Basically, he wants every speech to be perfect," a former campaign aide says.

Reagan's big speeches tend to be almost perfect -- as long as he sticks to the script. But he doesn't always do that. "In high school, college, all his life, he's loved to talk," says the candidate's older brother, Neil. Asked once to identify; his worst fault, Reagan knew right away: "talking too much." His public speeches have always been marked by rambling ad-libs, some insightful, some unfounded and some flatly ridiculous.

In a 1951 article drawn from speeches he was giving then -- one of the earliest Reagan texts that still exists -- he stated as a simple fact that "several elected members of Congress are known communists." He has been making rhetorical claims of equal validity ever since, and has proven immune to every effort to make him stop.

There is no reason to believe that Reagan would change a lifelong habit if he got to the White House, which suggests the public would be in for a lot more instances like the day when Jimmy Carter told the first family of Mexico about Montezuma's revenge. The difference may be that Reagan, unlike Carter in that case, is often willing to apologize for his flubs. His "Gost, I didn't mean it" press conferences make some of his most endearing scenes.

One place where Reagan's public person and private personality seem to mesh is in his basic friendliness, which itself reflects an optimistic, confident view of the world. Everybody who has tried to figure what kind of person Reagan is has concluded that he is a nice guy, a happy, secure person who likes himself and most other people.

If there is any trace of a mean streak in the man, it shows up in his disdain for liberals. Get Reagan talking, or writing, about his youthful political views, and he will never say that he was just a liberal. He was a "confused" liberal, a near-hopeless hemophiliac liberal" who, like other liberals, "bled for causes." All these shortcomings are endemic in the breed, to hear the new, conservative Reagan tell it.

Back in 1951, he observed that "The communists . . . get confused 'liberals' to front for them at all times." Today, the communists are no longer the villains, but liberals are still seen to be the tool of those who would drain the treasury and weaken the national defense. During a campaign stop this fall, Reagan was aked if he might meet with the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss civil rights and poverty programs. The candidate acted as if this were the most off-the-wall idea he'd ever heard. "I don't think," he said sarcastically, "that they would accept an invitation from me."

Other than that, though, Reagan extends an amiable hand to one and all, and shares with everyone his easy, it's-a-great-day cheer.

The basic text on Reagan's cheerful, optimistic world view is his autobiography, "Where's the Rest of Me?", published just as he was preparing to offer himself to the voters of California for the first time. The book was ghostwritten, but Reagan was unhappy with his ghost's product and reworked it himself before publication. It is full of anecdotes, pithy epithets and one-line gags, and has the clear ring of a Reagan stump speech.

The lesson of that book is that things generally work out all right. An obscure fate voerns our lives, and fate can be fickle but is usually generous. Every once in a while, as Reagan takes the reader along his life's path, he stops to enjoy the view. His childhood was "idyllic." College was a world of "charm and enchantment." His days in radio "were wonderful days." Hollywood gave him "a light rosy glow." Politics became "the most fascinating part of my life."

To see it that way, however, Reagan had to overlook some things. His boyhood, "one of those rare Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer idylls," according to the book, saw the family move five times before his ninth birthday, while his hard-drinking father searched for a job. His brother would ask the butcher for free scraps of liver "for the cat," and that became the family's Saturday night dinner. Lacking glasses, Reagan couldn't see the blackboard in school, even from the front row. His father passed out drunk on the front porch. His mother almost died in the 1918 flu epidemic. His adolescent home, Dixon, Ill., was marked by religious prejudice and race riots, including one where white men threw black children on moving box cars and laughed as the children were hauled out of town.

Reagan mentions some of this in the book, but still concludes that the happiness of his childhood far outweighed the problems. "We were poor but we didn't think of ourselves as poor." The contrast with another prominent Republican, Richard Nixon, is striking. Nixon, with similar strains in his youth, never stopped complaining about the obstacles he had to overcome. Reagan never stops talking about "the good life" he knew. "I have never asked for anything more, then or now, he says of life in Dixon.

Reagan graduated from Dixon's Northside High School in 1928, senior class president, drama club president, Hi-Y vice president, a letter man in football and track. He was on the yearbook staff, and perhaps that is why the caption under his picture so perfectly captures his mood: "Life is just one grand sweet song, so start the music."

He went on to Eureka, where he spent hours listening to the radio in the Tau Kappa Epsilon house. When he graduated in 1932, he landed a job as a sports broadcaster on a Davenport, Iowa, radio station. He worked hard there to enhance his performing style -- to develop what he calls "that easy, conversational, persuasive sell." He moved to a bigger station, and, in 1937, got a screen test and a contract with Warner Brothers. The studio just then badly needed a wholesome, All-American type to compete with MGM's Jimmy Stewart, and the engaging Midwestern broadcaster fit the bill so perfectly that Reagan was exempted from Warners' normal training school for new contract players.

For the next 13 years -- with time off to make Army training films during the war -- he was a ranking Warner Brothers star. He never won an Oscar or ranked first in the box office tallies, but he was a star who earned a huge salary, lived in a big home with a beautiful wife (Jane Wyman), and was a familiar figure to just about every adult American. When the tour buses came by his house, he would step outside and wave, because "if I were outside looking in, I'd like a Hollywood actor to wave at me."

He became active in the actors' union and was later the union president during the postwar "Red scare" in the movie business. Reagan's position was forcefully anticommunist, but he also argued against any blacklist of censorship. Phillip Dunne, the liberal screenwriter who was one of the few willing to defend the blacklisted "Hollywood Ten," critices Reagan today for lending his name to the Red-baiters, but adds that when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, Reagan gave "a fine statement of civil-libertarian principles."

But with the end of the 1940s, Reagan's Hollywood dream began to die. New male stars edged him aside, and his contract with Warner ended. Wyman, fed up with his long hours at the union and his constant talk of politics, stunned Reagan by telling a reporter that the marriage was through. After the divorce, Reagan went 14 months waiting for a movie offer.

His debts mounted, and he had to pay off a back-taxes assessment from the Internal Revenue Service. In 1953 his agent desparately booked him into Las Vegas for a two-week stint as the emcee of a low-budget nightclub act that featured a comedy-dance group called The Continentals. "Some of my friends were startled to learn of the Vegas commitment," Reagan admitted to a gossip columnist.

Gossip columnists made things worse. A star could not bear such ignominy in private. Though he has a public figure since before most living Americans were born, Reagan has never grown reconciled to the loss of privacy this entails. "I don't understand why we have to spend our lives in a goldfish bowl," he said once. The quotation appears in a 10-page article by columnist Hedda Hopper probing the troubles with the Reagan-Wyman marriage. In 1951, Reagan got himself in a shouting match with reporters when he called the press "irresponsible" but could not cite any specific cases of irresponsibilty.

Reagan was in the depths, but then fate stepped in again. Reagan's old agent, Lew Wasserman, got the unconventional idea that there was money to be made producing films for television. Early in 1954, General Electric Co. agreed to sponsor a series of dramas if Wasserman could find an established star to be the host. Reagan got the job, at $125,000 per year.

There were two big surprises in this move. First, most of Hollywood, including Reagan, was afraid of television then, fearful that appearing on this new medium would destroy a film career. "Everybody was worried and unhappy," recalls Robert Arthur, a producer who was active then. "They all kind of hoped the world would go back to the way it was before TV. But Ronnie was willing to make the move. It was partly because he had to, but he really thought he could keep making pictures, too."

More startling was the conversion of an active, fighting union president into chief spokesman for what was then the nation's most famously antiunion firm. Reagan's job involved the TV show and also a grueling schedule of speeches of General Electric plants and offices around the country. He became, in effect, a cheerleader for management -- for a management that virgorously followed the policies of GE vice president Lamuel Boulwar, a tenacious union fighter whose uncompromising negotiating tactics, known to labor lawyers as "Boulwarism," made GE the target of most labor leaders' hatred at the time.

Reagan's history as a union man serves to illustrate his sometimes quicksilver attitude toward political principle. When he came to Hollywood in 1937 he declined to join the union, and stood around on the set making cracks about the Screen Actors Guild. Then a fellow performer took him aside, and in an hour, he says, he was converted. He went on to become "a rabid union man," in his own phrase, serving six terms as the guild president. Shortly after he finished one of those terms, in 1954, he became spokesman for the citadel of Boulwarism. He remained on the guild's board of directors for six more years, all the while serving as GE management's roving ambassador to its employes.

Reagan's speeches, both inside and outside the GE plants, were growing more and more conservative: anti-government, anti-welfare, anti-progressive-income-tax. It all reflected the views of his brother, his second wife, Nancy Davis, whom he married in 1952, and the new circle of friends he was acquiring among wealthy California businessmen, some of whom were also active Republicans.

It was almost inevitable that some of his new Republican confidants would see this staunch conservative and marvelous public speaker as a potential political figure, but Reagan forcefully resisted their appeals. In 1961, when the state Republican chairman told a news conference that the party's best two hopes for governor in 1962 were Nixon and Reagan, the actor would have none of it."It would represent too much of a change in my way of living and what I'm trying to do," he said.

What Reagan was trying to do, with his GE contract ending in 1962, was to revive his movie career. He landed a token spot as the narrator of "The Young Doctors" in 1961, and his agent, Wasserman, by now head of Universal Pictures, cast him as a heavy in the 1964 movie "The Killers." He almost got a role in another picture right after that one, but the director, Phillip Dunne, concluded that Reagan couldn't fill the tough guy role proposed for him because "he won't frighten anybody."

Reagan did have a lively interest in politics; he had always loved the give and take of political argument, and in 1964, when the Republicans put up a presidential candidate who crystallized Reagan's conservative beliefs, he became a vigorous Barry Goldwater supporter. It was Reagan who first proposed that he give a televised speech for Goldwater near the end of that campaign; Goldwater resisted at first, fearing that Reagan would be too fervid to help. Eventually, Reagan's speech was broadcast. It was, like almost every major Reagan speech, a tour de force, and it brought much money for Goldwater and many, many pleas that Reagan get into politics himself.

And now Reagan, for the first time, began to listen seriously to those suggestions. The concerns that had held him back before -- his desire for privacy, his reluctance to fly (an outgrowth of mild claustrophobia he had experienced since childhood) -- began to recede, and Reagan starting telling friends and interviewers that he felt a "responsibility" to get involved.

There was another reason, too, for Reagan's new interest in a political career. In an interview a few weeks after his Goldwater speech, Reagan said that the most surprising result of that political endeavor was the fan mail it brought in.

"I never had a mail reaction like this in all my years in show business," he said. The old actor, the great performer who had always loved playing to an audience, had found himself a new stage.