It is always nice to hear a new national party chairman talk about how the thing he really wants most of all is to follow in the footsteps of a just-retired national party chairman.

So Charles T. Manatt, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was saying just the other day:

"My goal is to try to do the kind of job that Bill Brock did."

Which is interesting because Brock is, of course, the immediate past party chairman--of the Republican National Committee.

Manatt's reasoning is that Brock helped make the Democratic party what it is today--or, what it became on the first Wednesday in November, 1980. So he is borrowing a few pages and plans from the Republicans, in hope of returning the favor next November.

There is no time for subtlety. One of Brock's first GOP creations was a program to attract young community leaders to Republicanism; he called it the "Concord Program." One of Manatt's first creations was a similar program for the Democrats. He called it the "Lexington Program."

Today, the Democrats are awash in Republican-style task forces and targeting committees, strategy councils and study groups, programs for recruitment and programs for direct mail fundraising--and workshops where they tell each other how to put it all together. But the decisions most crucial to the Democrats' rising prospects for a comeback this year have been made, so far, in Ronald Reagan's White House--the decisions on the U.S. economy.

Democrats made this perfectly clear to each other at a seminar for congressional aides and candidates on how to win in November.

One by one the congressional aides gave testimony before the DNC pros about how local fundraising and recruitment suddenly became much easier once President Reagan revealed his new budget, with its record deficits. Responded Bernard Aronson, director of policy for the Democratic committee:

"It is a difficult needle that we have to thread. We have to counter the public feeling that Democrats are anxious for economic failure. But we shouldn't let anything divert attention from Reaganomics . . . . Reagan's economy is our best issue."

Democrats throughout the country are basking in new, high hopes, built upon the high unemployment, high interest rates and high deficits that are producing miseries for Republicans in all regions.

Just a year ago, there were no sounds of ebullience in the Democratic caucuses. Ronald Reagan was dominating the news with his congressional victories. Headlines occasionally spoke of "Democrats," but usually coupled with "disarray."

The Democrats then were looking gloomily at the 1982 prospect of losing their last bastion of of power: the House of Representatives. Now they talk of picking up 13 to 30 seats in the House.

In the Senate, where the GOP holds a three-seat majority, Democrats now are talking optimistically of holding the line, perhaps even gaining a seat or two--which would be an enormous accomplishment, since 21 of the 33 senators up for reelection are Democrats.

In the state races, Democrats are looking for a significant gain of four or five governorships. Republicans concede that they are especially in trouble in the gubernatorial contests, in part due to the recent retirements of Republican Govs. Bob Ray of Iowa, William Milliken of Michigan and James Rhodes of Ohio, who remained popular in their states, plus Albert Quie of Minnesota, whose popularity fell as his administration's fiscal woes mounted.

John White, the party chairman during the Carter years, lapsed into a bit of overstatement about how things are going.

"It's getting so that regardless of whether we do a good job or a bad job, I think the Democrats will elect everybody running. Because when the tide moves, it moves everything in front of it."

Democratic optimism is gushing because things have not been going the Republicans' way. A year ago, Republicans had great expectations of lasting gains from the reapportionment of congressional districts and hopes of realignment of the electorate along party lines. But things turned out differently:

Reapportionment, the mapping of new congressional district lines, has become a standoff. Population shifts to the GOP citadels of the suburbs and the Sun Belt did not translate into the expected Republican political bonanza; Democrats may emerge with a slight edge.

Realignment, the transformation of the Grand Old Party into the new majority party, has not come about. Polls show that northern blue collar Democrats and southern conservative Democrats have not yet been converted into Reagan Republicans, despite a short-lived movement that set off hosannahs from some Republicans last summer.

Five Democratic pollsters reported to the DNC this year that party realignment has sputtered and stalled. In June, a survey by the respected Republican pollster, Robert Teeter, showed that more people described themselves as Republicans than Democrats, by 39 percent to 34 percent. Democratic pollsters respected those findings, but by December, they found the Democrats were back on top, 41 to 31.

Also, when people were asked which party's candidate they favored for Congress, Democrats also led by a 41 to 31 margin. This is a sharp decline for Republicans from the Gallup poll last June, when Democrats led only by 52 percent to 48 percent.

But the big gainer in those intervening months was "undecided/neither," as 28 percent were saying by December they didn't know who to trust to lead the nation out of its economic mire.

Back at that DNC seminar, the workshop session turned to strategy.

Don't let the Republicans blame the mess on us, Aronson said. "Take the initiative. Remind the audience that Ronald Reagan got his entire economic plan through Congress. It is all his."

Actually, the Democrats came perilously close to blowing that one when House Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski was determined to defeat Reagan's tax plan, even though it meant pinning a Democratic label on a mostly Republican plan.

"At the time I thought it was important for the Democrats to defeat Reagan and his plan," a Rostenkowski ally conceded. "Now I see it was important that Reagan won."

Now, loyal Republicans are concerned whether they will be able to hold their own in the traditionally Republican farm belt of the Midwest. Farm economy has plunged not just into recession, but depression.

In Iowa, Democrats hope to gain two of the three GOP House seats. "Farm prices have never been lower compared to parity than at any time since 1933," Democratic state chairman Dave Nagel said. "And the high interest rates--you know what that means in Iowa? It shuts the place down, that's what it does."

The Republicans have a hope and a reality going for them, however. The hope is that Reaganomics will work as the president promises. The reality is money--and a smoothly running party machine that seems capable of producing as much as is needed. The Republican party treasuries already are well larded even though their heavy fundraising of 1982 has not yet begun.

"We must institutionalize the Democratic party," said Manatt. "The Republicans are way ahead of us in that regard. For many years, things were so easy for us that we didn't have to set up our party in any institutionalized way."

Manatt has pushed the party into direct mail fundraising in a big way. For most of the 1970s, the Republicans painstakingly built a direct mail empire. They now have more than 2 million proven, repeated donors in their computerized files.

The Democrats went another route in those years, when Robert Strauss was chairman in the wake of the 1972 McGovern debacle that left the party bitterly divided.

Strauss was a master fundraiser whose strength was in shaking big money from big givers. Now Strauss' reliance on big contributors is criticized in some party circles, even though he paid off much of the party's 1968 and 1972 debt.

"My orientation is different from Bob's," Manatt explained. "Strauss did not use the direct mail approach. Largescale contributors and telethons were the big thing with Strauss."

In the mythology of American politics, Republicans are the party of the fat cat contributors and they vastly outspend Democrats. This is not the case.

In 1980, the average contribution to the Democrats was $500. The average contribution to Republicans by contrast was $35, largely because of the GOP direct mail appeals to millions of small givers.

In the 1980 Senate and House races, Democrats outspent Republicans by a six-to-five margin, largely because incumbents usually are able to raise more than challengers.

The Democrats talk proudly of their new direct mail venture as though they were re-inventing the wheel of fortune.

The numbers are modest so far, however, because it is a long distance run, not a political windsprint, explained Roger Craver, whose direct mail firm of Craver, Matthews, Smith & Co. has been hired by the Democrats.

As of last July, the Democratic National Committee direct mail list had 25,000 names of donors, Craver said. Now they have 125,000. By the end of the year, they hope to have 250,000. Add the Senate and House campaign committees, and the Democrats hope they will have 500,000 total donors by election day.

These donors contributed $2.2 million to direct mail appeals in 1981, Craver said. And he expects new and old donors to contribute $6.8 million this year.

But the Democratic figures pale by comparison to the GOP totals. The RNC raised $33.5 million last year from 1.5 million donors. Add the Republican Senate and House campaign committees, and the Republican total is $78 million, more than 10 times the Democrats.

"It's sad when you think of what might have been," said Craver. The post-McGovern telethons produced names of 320,000 donors and McGovern's list, in fact, had 600,000 names on it. "But the Democratic party didn't go after those names for years and years. If we had continued with it, we'd have been even with the Republicans today."

"The trick, in direct mail, is that you have to get people to open the envelope," said Craver. "About 75 percent of all direct mail appeals get thrown away unopened."

In the race to catch up, Craver has pressed hard against the legitimate bounds. He touched off a controversy with one Democratic mailing in an official looking envelope with prominent lettering that made no mention of Democrats, but said, "Enclosed: Urgent Information About Your Social Security."

Craver demured, "Sometimes you have to turn the temperature up, because the stakes are high."

Rep. Tony Coehlo of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wants to discover if he can win friends without "affluencing" people.

He is about to tell most of his fellow House Democrats that his committee will not give them any campaign money this year. He hopes, eventually, they will thank him.

With the backing of Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, and the urging of Manatt, Coehlo sold his committee on targeting only 80 House races that will be close, and in which money may make the difference. These 80 Democrats will be given big contributions--$25,000 each. The rest will have to do without the $1,000 or $2,000 or occasional $5,000 that the committee usually gives to every candidate.

"A lot of Democrats are going to want to get into our targeted group, and I'm going to have to say, 'Too bad, good luck but we can't help,' " Coehlo said. "A lot of it is gut calls, but I'm willing to take a chance."

A year ago, in a lecture at Princeton University, former President Jimmy Carter acknowledged that he felt during his reelection campaign that the Democratic party--of which he was the titular head--was "an albatross around my neck." This moved Democrats at the DNC, in Congress and in the party clubhouses everywhere, to scoff.

"When I heard that Jimmy Carter had said that," said Marjorie Thurman, the Democratic chair of Georgia, "all I could think was, 'sweetheart, you were the albatross around the Democratic party's neck.' The Carter years were devastating, absolutely devastating for the party."

Now the Democratic machinery is commanded by a leader who is in his own way as uncommon to politics as their ex-farmer-engineer-populist-president. Charles Manatt, a multimillionaire California banker, employs an embassy row vernacular that would have driven the Richard Daleys and George Meanys and the boys in the clubhouses to demand a translator. As when he says: "It is very important that we institutionalize our strategy. The Komeito party of Japan is way ahead of us on that." Or when he calls a deputy chairman a "charge d'affairs." And he explained his use of time-tested Republican tactics to rebuild the Democrats with: "If you start a new little bank out in Century City, you've got to have a marketing strategy to succeed."

EPILOGUE: Brock--the de facto architect of the Democratic blueprint, who now is Reagan's U.S. trade representative--was asked what he thinks of this attempt to pilfer his RNC design.

"I think it's great," said Brock. "I'm not troubled if they do what we do--unless they do it better. It's our job to do it better, or we don't deserve to win."