Twice denied his party's gubernatorial nomination by the opposition of the few men who dominated the Republican state conventions, Robert M. LaFollette retaliated by winning both the adoptionof the direct primary in, and the governorship of, Wisconsin. Undoubtedly, the legendary progressiveleader's championing of the direct primary was rooted in profound philosophical principle. Any personal political advantage to him in taking that position must have been totally accidental.

Still, the LaFollette lesson survives for succeeding generations of the unsuccessful to see: after losing, he successfully changed the rules and then won. Defeated candidates and their supporters (not to mention checkers players) have been trying to duplicate the LaFollette feat by changing the rules of the contest they lost. Almost never do the winners, particularly the presidential winners, have much fault to find with the system by which they triumphed. A few victors have even deemed the process divinely ordained. The Democrats who lost presidential elections in 1968, 1972 and 1980, after each defeat, selected a party commission to recommend changes in the way we choose our presidential candidates. All the commissions and most of their recommendations have been taken quite seriously.

Almost directly as a result of the changes in the party delegate selection rules, between 1968 and 1980 the number of presidential primaries grew from 17 to 36. Simultaneously the percentage of all convention delegates chosen through primaries doubled from 40 percent to 80 percent.

Change, in many ways, did actually mean improvement. Proxy voting and blatantly exclusionary and discriminatory selection practices were outlawed. The entire process was made essentially more legitimate, more accessible to candidates and rank-and-file party members, and more timely. But all commissions will be recalled, and reviled, for one 1969 line. The offending passage urged the representation at the convention of women, minorities and those under 30 "in reasonable relationship to their presence in the population." This single guideline, advanced under the banner of "opening up" the process, instead mandated sexual and racial quotas and forced a predetermined result from an allegedly democratic process. Because the purpose was noble, the hypocrisy was supposed to be overlooked. And it mostly was.

Today, with fewer than 29 months remaining before the 1984 Iowa presidential caucuses, the Democrats have yet another party commission. If this group follows the pattern, it will come to be known as the Hunt commission, after its chairman, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. The chairman, who in his successful public career had previously demonstrated no kamikaze tendencies, will try to lead a group full of mutual suspicion from past wars and of self-confidence about their own remedies for change.

Some Hunt commissioners give priority to including more elected officials in the delegate and nominating process. Others seek rules that might "diminish the chewing up of the candidates" they see under the present system. Virtually all want to shorten the presidential campaigns.

Don't bet that anybody will be able to shorten the nominating campaigns. Basically, there are two reasons. First, every candidate remembers that, since Ike, nobody has been elected to the White House without first winning the New Hampshire primary. Anybody who is seriously hopeful about 1984 knows the importance of New Hampshire and is probably right now in either Concord or Nashua.

The second reason is even more important. Every presidential candidate has available two very perishable resources: money and time. The 1974 federal election act limited what any presidential candidate who accepts matching funds could spend in any single state or overall in pursuit of the nomination. Thus, when all candidates can spend no more than their opponents, time becomes the more important of the two resources. In 1975, one full year before the election, underdog Jimmy Carter spent 260 days campaigning. In 1979, underdog George Bush campaigned 328 days. With those kinds of numbers producing those kinds of results, presidential campaigns will not be made shorter by any guidelines.

So, with very little ability to influence the duration of the presidential campaigns, the Hunt group could wisely turn its energies to precisely where its charge carries it. Guidelines are very much within a commission's purview. By recommending repeal of that 1969 guideline about "reasonable relationship," the Hunt commission could speed the end of quotas. After that we can take up the folly of proportional representation.