Ronald Reagan, California's Cowboy Capitalist, is galloping toward Washington, promising to rein in America's bucking economy, corrol inflation and put a cattle prod to sagging productivity.

The mere anticipation of his arrival as the tough buckaroo who many feel will tame a near-16-percent prime interest rate, rescue the housing industry and restore the dollar to its former preminence has elicited huzzahs from financial wizards around the world.

So why is David Bishop, a lawyer from Rochester, Minn., betting against him? Why is he bellying up to one of the dozens of gold-coin dealers at the National Committee for Monetary Reform convention to write out a $3,000 check for gold $50 Canadian Mapleleafs and snap up a special offering of platinum coins?

"Let's say you have a war scare and the U.S. gets excited about strategic metals," says Bishop, salivating over $636-an-ounce platinum. "If the price goes up, you melt it down. If you have prosperity instead of war, you sell it to the Japanese for jewelry. The Japanese love platinum."

Bishop stalked lost purchasing power and piece of mind among the 5,000 convention-going "gold bugs" and hard-currency believers already hedging their bets on a Reagan presidency. Flocking to New Orleans for the largest gold bug conference in history, they spent the last four days commiserating over paper money and the economy's inevitable demise.

And when they weren't hanging on every word from deflated silver bull Nelson Bunker Hunt or financial doomsayer Howard (Ruff Times) Ruff, or gold bug guru James Dines -- among the 45 speakers in the cavernous Rivergate Convention Center -- they were planning to purchase the currencies of fear (gold and silver), scouting out rare stamps and tax shelters, harping that diamonds are forever and charting their investment strategies.

No one here is betting that Ronald Reagan can save the day.

"Reagan's victory may be one of the biggest benders in history," says one convention organizer James U. Blanchard III, the 37-year-old founder of National Committee for Monetary Reform, who bought gold at $35 an ounce, flew over Nixon's 1973 inauguration in a Cessna trailing a "Legalize Gold" banner and led a lobbying effort that legalized the private ownership of gold in 1975. "No president, not even a Republican with a Republican Senate and more Republicans in the House, will be able to turn the tide. We've got too many years of economic sins to pay for."

The gold bugs accepted the irony that while Reagan was their only hope, his electon helped drive gold below $600 an ounce Friday, Dines, a tall, lanky est graduate and registered securities analyst who dispenses his pro-gold advice from San Francisco, termed it a "turkey shakeout," a short-term market aberration. Relieved gold bugs counted thier krugerrands and dreamed of $2,000-an-ounce gold, $100-an-ounce silver and Dines' dark forcast of a "crash and depression within three years if we don't get on the gold standard." "

"The preception that Reagan could be the white knight is enough to drive the price of gold and silver lower," said Michael Boyd, a plaid-suited New York asset manager who earnestly sipped a scotch in the Deak-Perera hospitality suite. "The real danger is that people will think everything's okay.

"The Indians are still attacking even though we hear the horn of theagan Reagan calvary over the hill."

So, what to do?

Buy gold on Monday if it's still below $600, but if it drops below $590, get out fast and wait for it to bottom, advised Bert Dohmen-Ramirez, a Honolulu financial analyst.

Don't buy gold, buy silver at $18, said others. A much better buy.

Don't buy either, said Harry Browne, 47, best-selling author of "New Profits from the Monetary Crisis," who sold his silver at $40. Buy long-term U.S. Treasury securities as protection against deflation, "certain" mutual funds and even some stocks, he advised.

"Too many people regard their hard currencies like religious icons -- the holy trinity," said Browne, as devotees pushed through crowds to touch his sleeve and tell how much money he had made for them. Some see gold as the father, silver as the son and the Swiss franc -- because it's not backed by anything -- as the holy ghost.

"Some gold bugs regard them like members of the family which they would never sell. But my work is to puncture balloons, to bring people back to reality.Gold expectations are greatly exaggerated."

But the man who really made the gold bugs wince was former Treasury secretary W. Michael Blumenthal. He predicted a stronger dollar, and talked of the recession forecasters kept predicting "unitl it came true," and, to scattered boos and hisses, put a tarnish on the glittering yellow metal.

"The era of gold used as a bassis for currency is over," he proclaimed. "Gold will play a role of ornamental value, as a precious metal to touch, impossible to counterfeit and as a protection for equity. But gold will never play a significant role, nor do I believe it should."

But what does he know? the convention-goers mused, arching their eyebrows knowingly at one another. They were doctors, lawyers, dirt-under-the-fingernails millionaires and truckdrivers, stock brokers and bankers who bragged about their coups and covered up their failures over beer and fresh-shucked oysters long into the sultry New Orleans night.

"I got out of gold at $700 and, boy, was I glad," said Charles Shirey, 46, a drawling Greenville, Tex., retailer who made a tidy profit investing in gold and soybeans seven years back. "Now I'm shorting cotton and live hogs. It's risky, but you can make good money at it, even if you will only 30 percent of the time."

"Speculation is what it's all about," nodded a Chicago commodities broker. "Speculation built this country, it's not a dirty word. I don't care what happens in a commodity, as long as it moves."

Dozens of furtive conventioneers withheld their names. One large, muu muu-attired woman from San Francisco sported a nametag "Mrs. Anonymous, Tulsa, Okla." Another explained her fear as "enlightened paranoia. You might be from the IRS."

"We call this the clan, the country club, a fraternity of like-minded people whose motives are fear and greed," said Gerald Becker, business manager for Chicago-based Commodities Magazine. "Most of the people here are alternate investors who look at stocks and bonds and say, 'No way they can keep me ahead of inflation.'"