When they were slugging it out in the 1976 North Carolina Republican primary, Ronald Reagan ridiculed President Ford for dipping into the White House pork barrel to distribute federal grants before the election.

On the Saturday before the primary, Reagan said of Ford: "If he comes here with the same list of goodies as he did in Florida, the band won't know whether to play 'Hail to the Chief' or 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.' " And Reagan's campaign aides joked about sending someone dressed as Santa Claus to a Ford rally to mock the presidential largess.

Now that he's in the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan is playing Santa Claus.

In an effort to help capture more congressional seats for Republicans this fall, White House officials have asked for lists from federal agencies of all grants "in the system" for such things as housing projects and bridges so that Reagan or GOP candidates can make the election-year announcements.

This is standard procedure for White House campaigning. But in Reagan's case it has a particular irony, since the administration has sought to convince Congress over the last 21 months that Washington should provide less, not more, in the way of federal aid and grants.

"You might say there is a certain contradiction there," one administration official acknowledged.

This is the season for such contradictions. Some have come in Congress, where the White House, to avoid offending interest groups with the election fast approaching, has switched or softened its stance on several bills it previously opposed.

Just last week, for example, Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell indicated the administration will not fight a bill preserving current eligibility standards for federal grants to low- and middle-income college students; it had earlier tried to tighten the current rules, saying the program was too costly.

Last week the president also announced his enthusiastic support for a compromise job training bill toward which the administration had earlier been lukewarm. And the administration now seems to have joined with Congress in putting off until after the election a threatened battle over budget-busting appropriations bills.

But the classic form of pre-election party favor is still the federal grant. A perfect example -- and indication of what the White House may do with those lists of grants now "in the system" -- came on Sept. 17 when Reagan made a campaign appearance on behalf of Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.) at the San Gennaro Italian-American festival in Flemington, N.J.

Catching Fenwick by surprise, Reagan departed from his prepared text. "Right now I'm going to make a little announcement here . . . ," he said. "In spite of all our cuttings, there are things that government has to do and should do."

"I am pleased to announce," the president added, "that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has advised me that they have agreed to approve Section 8 funding for 125 units of elderly housing at Park Place in Ewing, New Jersey."

Fenwick jumped up out of her chair and embraced Reagan, who cracked: "If you don't elect her senator we will take it away."

What the president didn't mention is that his administration, in the budget proposals it sent to Congress earlier this year, proposed eliminating much of the Section 8 housing construction program. The New Jersey project would come from funds that the administration spared from the budget knife, however.

Administration officials said construction of the new housing would cost the government $5 million to $6 million, and rent subsidies to tenants would cost even more in later years.

One of those who heard about Reagan's announcement from the news reports was Mayor Chester Cohen of Ewing Township, a working-class Trenton suburb (population 35,000) where the 125 units of subsidized housing are to be constructed by a private developer.

Cohen said his city had been seeking the housing for several years, and in recent months there were intensified contacts with Washington. Cohen, a Democrat, said he welcomed the decision even if it came from a Republican president. "Look, I'm a practical man. I'm very happy. I got 125 units. I'm not going to complain."

Reagan advisers said the New Jersey announcement won't be the last.

"We asked agencies to find things coming into the system between now and December," said one administration official. "We wanted to let the president make some announcements. Let's get some mileage out of it."

"When the president announces a grant, it makes it a far more major thing," the official said. "There are thousands and thousands of grants where we have Democrats targeted. What we're saying is, don't give them all the big announcements," he added.

The White House pork barrel was the subject of a legal fight in 1980 between President Carter and liberals backing his rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Kennedy's forces filed a lawsuit challenging Carter's grantsmanship, among other things, on grounds that he was making overtly political use of federal funds.

However, the legal challenge was thrown out on procedural grounds.

Carter's largess continued in the fall campaign, but Reagan remained largely silent on the matter. "We had bigger issues to talk about," said one Reagan adviser.

Now, however, Reagan has apparently found federal grants that are worth talking about, and not in the context of cutting them. "If you don't take advantage of what you've got, you're a damn fool," concluded one White House official.

"Democrats do the same thing," said Mayor Cohen.