Passing out 50,000 copies of a Washington newspaper editorial on the streets of Tulsa, Okla., April 10, Republican operatives began the battle for Ronald Reagan's budget that will be the first decisive test of the 97th Congress.

The Washington Star's lead editorial the previous day, sarcastically titled "Jim Jones for President?," criticized Rep. James R. Jones, chairman of the House Budget Committee, for presuming too much in presenting an alternative budget to Ronald Reagan's. The Republican congressional campaign committee hastened to spread the word in Rep. Jones' conservative Tulsa district, plotting to cut him down.

Whatever impact this might have on Jones' 1982 reelection campaign, it certainly will not soften his opposition to the Reagan budget. Rather, the concerted campaign against Jones by Republicans and right-wing operatives is intended to frighten conservative Democrats and make them support Reagan's budget in the floor vote early next month following the current Easter recess. b

The House will be choosing between rival budgets put forth by Reagan and Jones in a high noon gunfight that will shape the Reagan administration's first two years. While the budget merely sets upper limits on spending and tax cutting, the battle is a vote of confidence or no confidence in the Reagan economic plan, certain to have repercussions on the tax cut bill.

Jimmy Jones is central to this. While Democratic leaders babbled aimlessly about a response to Reaganism, Jones acted. His budget is a political masterpiece. Wrongly styled more conservative than Reagan's because of smaller projected deficits, it in fact cuts defense, boosts social welfare and savages Reagan's tax plans.

As such, Jones' alternative looks a little as though it emerged from the hip pocket of his old boss, Lyndon B. Johnson, who as Senate majority leader gave a little here, a little there for all kinds of Democrats, enveloping the whole scene in soft lights and draperies. Whereas two months ago Jones was thought by many Democrats to be too conservative to be a future speaker, now a few important liberal activists tout him as presidential timber.

Even if all Republicans support the president on the budget resolution, he will still need at least 26 votes. Their primary source is the 44-member Conservative Democratic Forum -- the "Redneck Caucus" -- whose members long have regarded Jones (with his 33 percent liberal voting record) as a kindred soul.

That explains the intensifying assault on Jones: Make him disreputable as a standard for conservative Democrats. The strategy of Rep. Ed Bethune of Arkansas, a Republican Budget Committee member and a comer, is to convince conservative Democrats they must choose between two antithetical poles: Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Reagan, with no Jones middle ground.

Besides stigmatizing Jones as a born-again liberal, the Republican tactic is to pressure the redneck caucus. Word is being spread that any Democrats representing conservative districts -- Rep. Marvin Leath of Texas is singled out as typical -- can expect to have Republican colleagues campaigning on their door-steps if they vote against Reagan. But such a vote in Leath's case is highly unlikely.

"We want to warn CDF . . . members," says a House Republican strategy memo, "that talking conservative while voting liberal is very dangerous." More lethal, the National Conservative Political Action Committee has sent letters to members of the redneck caucus threatening dire consequences if they oppose the Reagan program.

Rep. Kent Hance of Texas, who entered Congress from the conservative Midland-Odessa oil-drilling district by beating George Bush Jr. in 1978, received one such threatening letter. Simultaneously, Ways and Means Committee member Hance was being coaxed by Democratic leaders to be a loyal party man. His fellow Texan, House Majority Leader Jim Wright, fed him dinner to ask just that. Hance gave no commitments.

Like other congressmen, Hance will be testing his grass roots (especially at a town meeting in his hometown of Lubbock Monday night). But the outcome is preordained. His district went for Reagan by over 70 percent. In a high noon shootout, Hance almost surely will cross party lines to support Reagan. There may well be enough Hances to make the difference.

That is why Jimmy Jones, in the spirit of LBJ, will try to avert a high noon choice for Hance by letting him vote for an amendment to restore some of the $6.6 billion in defense budget authority for next year cut by the Jones alternative. Even so, Jones' budget over three years would spend $45 billion more than Reagan for social welfare, the difference made up by much thinner tax cuts. The Republican mission is to hammer that home so that all House members understand the political consequences of which way they go.