Ronald Reagan tonight ended his quest for the presidency as it began, evoking the memories of a past America and saying that the United States still stands for "the last best hope of man on earth." t

"Together, tonight, let us say what so many long to hear: That America is still united, still strong, still compassionate, still clinging fast to the dream of peace and freedom, still willing to stand by those who are persecuted or alone," Reagan said in a nationally televised speech.

The Republican nominee continued to treat the hostage issue with kid gloves, referring to them only once in his televised speech.

"I know that tonight the fate of America's 52 hostages is very much on the minds of all of us," Reagan said in language similar to that he has been using on the campaign stump the last three days. "Like you, there is nothing I want more than their safe return -- that they be reunited with their families after this long year of their imprisonment. When they have returned, all of us will be turning to the concerns that will determine the course of America in the next four years."

Reagan's speech was studded with references to American patriots and war heroes and sprinkled with quotations from speeches reaching as far back as his banquet circuit talks to General Electric employes a quarter century ago.

Only in one section of the speech did he directly refer to President Carter, saying:

"If you feel that Mr. Carter has faithfully served America with the kind of competence and distinction that deserve four more years in office, then you should vote for him. If he has given you the kind of leadership you are looking for, if he instills in you pride for our country and a sense of optimism about our future, then he should be reelected."

The Republican nominee then launched into a litany with which he closed his debate with Carter a week ago -- and which Reagan repeated throughout the final day of campaigning in stump speeches in Peoria, Ill., Portland, Ore., and San Diego.

"Are your more confident that our economy will create productive work for our society or are you less confident?" said Reagan. ". . . Is our nation stronger and more capable of leading the world toward peace and freedom or is it weaker?"

There were a dozen such rhetorical questions in all, concluding with what Reagan called "the basic question of our lives -- are you happier today than when Mr. Carter became president of the United States?"

When these questions were asked at the last day's campaign rallies, well-coached partisan crowds roared back, "No!"

Reagan was accompanied on his final two days of campaigning by former president Ford and comedian Bob Hope, both of whom were applauded as loudly as the nominee.

Before a banner that declared "Reagan Plays Well in Peoria," Hope warmed up a downtown crowd with a series of one-liners, saying that Ford had told him that if he ever returned to the White House he would "pardon President Carter."

As for Amy Carter, Hope attributed her interest in nuclear weapons to the a report that "Uncle Billy gave her a Raggedy Ann doll with a nuclear warhead."

"The only difference between Billy Carter and Jimmy Carter is that Billy has a foreign policy," Hope concluded.

The gags were part of a campaign-end routine that touched obliquely on some of the supposed scandals of the Carter White House. In his television address, Reagan pledged to "fight corruption while we work to bring into our government women and men of high integrity."

Reagan also promised "a new age of reform in this country and an era of national renewal."

He said his administration would make Cabinet officers "the managers of the national administration" and that he would improve federal auditing procedures and name an ombudsman "to work with labor and industry groups to strengthen needed federal regulations while eliminating those that are burdensome and unnecessarily costly."

Both Hope and Ford were openly optimistic that Reagan would win the election.

"The voters are going to correct a mistake they made four years ago," Ford predicted aboard Reagan's campaign plane, "Leadership 80."

But Reagan, though relatively optimistic during the final week of the campaign, was more guarded in his private expressions today.

"He remembers how Dewey fell off the wedding cake," Hope told a reporter.

It was a reference to the 1948 presidential election when President Truman, to whom Carter has sometimes compared himself, upset Republican standard bearer Thomas Dewey, who had been described in a famous remark by Alice Roosevelt Longworth as "the man on the wedding cake."

Dewey, like Reagan, was a Republican challenger who was a clear favorite on the eve of the election.

Despite the candidate's caution, there was confidence among the Reagan strategists that the GOP nominee would win a decisive Electoral College victory.

There are those associated with the campaign who think that Reagan survived despite his campaign efforts rather than because of them. He went through a series of campaign managers and press secretaries and endured a series of gaffes in late August and early September that almost destroyed his campaign.

But Reagan has always been an underestimated candidate. He was underestimated in his first race for governor in California in 1966 by incumbent Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, who thought Reagan would be so weak that Brown's aides maneuvered to get him nominated.

Subsequently, he was underestimated by Ford in 1976 and by George Bush in this year's primaries.

Reagan was in a reflective mood in the final day of his cross-country campaign odyssey that began in New York on Nov. 13, 1979 and extended through 32 Republican primaries and the bitterly contested general election.

Reagan said he would be "disappointed" if he did not win the election.

"Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, that they see themselves, and that I'm one of them. I've never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them."