In our three most recent presidential elections, Republican candidates for president have won a total of 24.5 million votes more than their Democratic opponents. In those same campaigns, Democratic nominees were able to average just 44 percent of the two-party vote and to carry a grand total of only 30 states. That's right--30 states carried in three national elections. The Republicans won the other 120. Of course, these Democratic nominees, whose combined statistics are so collectively unimpressive, were chosen under thoroughly democratized and open nominating rules.

Lately, those reform rules are being blamed by a growing number of Democrats for those past defeats and that present party distemper. Critics of the party rules changes now urge a return to the days when party leaders and elected officials had a very large say in who was (and who wasn't) nominated. After all, their argument proceeds, those despised and undemocratic smoke-filled rooms produced the following string of nominees: Roosevelt, Truman, Stevenson, Kennedy, Johnson and Humphrey. Care to compare them, they chortle, with the post-reform products?

Americans have generally taken the proof-of- the-pudding argument. But the betting here is that the present rules will be chided a lot more in the next few months than they are changed. One person, more than any other, without so much as publicly addressing the subject, will prevent either the reappearance of the smoke- filled room or the repeal of the present nominating rules. That man, as you probably guessed, is that well-known reformer and Democratic fellow traveler: Richard Nixon.

Peer review is the strongest argument for the smoke-filled room. There, the folks who know the candidates best, their strengths and foibles, can be heard. The most imaginative media consultant may be able to cover up, in a short primary season, the candidate's character blemishes. But the candidate's colleagues know better. That was a pretty good argument until 1974.

Five times Richard Nixon was nominated by his party for national office. Only FDR was chosen as many times. Both men had identical national election records of four wins and one loss. In 1972 two Republicans, Rep. John Ashbrook of Ohio and Rep. Pete McCloskey of California opposed the Nixon renomination. But in both cases their disagreements were rooted more in ideology than in character.

At the 1972 convention, Nixon's former rivals --Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater--were allowed to proclaim his virtues on national television. And they did. The Nixon nomination was seconded by Sen. James Buckley (R-Cons.-NY), Rep. Ed Derwinski (R-Ill.), former Alaska governor Walter Hickel and Col. Frank Borman, now of Eastern Airlines. Peer review never fully recovered from the 1972 Nixon experience. The argument will almost surely be made, when the Democrats meet to debate any changes in the nominating rules, that Nixon's personality and character defects would not have gone similarly undetected through 36 primaries in 14 weeks.

As humorist Mark Russell, certainly Washington's and maybe America's funniest man, says: "Richard Nixon in New Jersey--that's redundant." To the delight of Russell and some Democrats, Nixon is back with one more of his inspiring taped messages from the Oval Office. This one deals with the possible use of some Teamsters to beat up anti-war protesters. Five times that troubled man was approved by the residents of those smoke-filled rooms, those who knew him best.

Richard Nixon will basically frame the debate on the nominating rules. Rightly or wrongly, the question will be put: who should pick our presidents--the people or the politicians? And those who argue for the former will put those who support an expanded role for the latter very much on the defensive by reminding everyone of 1972 and the failure of peer review. Thank you, Mr. Nixon.