Way back last June, Reubin Askew paused upon entering the Manchester, N.H., restaurant where he was to be the featured attraction at a free continental breakfast. "Well," he said to an aide, "let's see if anyone showed up."

Inside, there was one person. Barely daunted, the distinguished, graying former governor of Florida gave his speech anyway, and won himself a convert.

"I'd like to help your campaign," said the audience, offering a business card that Askew pocketed without a glance. What the man did not know is that Askew is, by practice and avocation, a devout teetotaler. What Askew did not know is that the man's card identified him as the regional distributor for Schenley's liquors.

It gets lonely out there, from time to time, in the early days when you are running for president. Especially when you are running far from home and are not exactly No. 1--not even 1 percent, in fact, in the polls.

But loneliness does not bother Reubin O'Donovan Askew. For he has styled himself as the lonesome end on the team of Democrats making the long run for the presidency. It is all part of his calculated plan, even if it has the party pros believing that the Askew campaign is slightly askew.

In Sacramento next week, Askew will be the only Democratic presidential contender who won't attend the California state party convention to speak and politic among the more than 2,000 delegates. "It just isn't the right time for us," says an Askew spokesman. "It just doesn't fit into our plans."

In Philadelphia last June, Askew was the only presidential contender who opted not to address the national Democratic midterm conference, even though he did go there to meet the delegates. "I am trying to keep my effort very low key," Askew said then. " . . . I don't want to peak too early."

In his effort to stand apart, if not out, in Philadelphia, Askew first decided against having a trailer headquarters in the hall, as the others had; then he decided he needed a trailer after all, but gave orders that it not be put alongside the other trailers. The result: many delegates never did find their way to the trailer in the rear where Askew was trying to hold his courtship.

On controversial issue, too, Askew does not mind standing alone. He is the only Democratic contender who has not rushed to embrace the much-questioned domestic content legislation that the labor unions have championed in their effort to curb the rush of Japanese goods into American markets.

" . . . Powerful political pressures are mounting within the United States to go it alone--to limit the supposedly insidious influence of foreign competition on American employment by imposing additional restrictions on access to American markets by a variety of imports," he said in Houston last November, making clear his opposition to the idea.

Askew lays claim to competence on the issue because he served as U.S. special trade representative in President Carter's administration. And his position does not hurt his chances of getting the AFL-CIO's endorsement for the Democratic nomination because he had no chance of getting it anyway, by virtue of his stand in favor of "right-to-work" legislation.

But in that speech, and in most of his speeches since, Askew went on to criticize his Democratic rivals on the 1984 campaign trail. His remarks clearly centered on former vice president Walter F. Mondale, whose tough-talking line on the issue is patterned after labor's own.

". . . Those who still believe in open trade have, by implication, been described as 'patsies' and 'suckers.' . . . All this, not from Republicans, who have an historical affection for high tarrifs and other trade barriers, but from Democrats who should know better.

". . . The challenges posed by the world transition will not be met by macho bravado that masquerades as creative public policy. And unemployment will not be reduced by misleading analogies that blind us to the realities of the difficult and even painful adjustments that must be made by the American people."

Painful adjustments: Askew, whose home state is the new home of many retirees, also prescribes a cure for the Social Security system that goes farther than other candidates. He advocates taxing the Social Security benefits of all recipients whose outside income is in excess of $25,000 a year.

It was more than a decade ago that Askew first made his mark on the national Democratic Party conscience, for the stand he took during a presidential primary in which he was not a candidate.

In 1972, Askew, then Florida's young born-again Christian governor, took on the conservative party elders and most of the population of his state over a referendum on the primary election ballot that called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would outlaw busing in school desegregation. Askew stumped his state in a vain effort to defeat the referendum, campaigning even though he was predicting that the referendum would win overwhelmingly, which it did.

"I know there are plenty of people . . . who disagree with me," he said in an interview then. ". . . But being a leader means that sometimes a person has to speak out even when he knows he's going to lose." And so he sounded his litany day after day, including this 1972 speech at a meeting of preachers:

"Busing is an artificial and inadequate instrument of change. It should be abandoned just as soon as we can afford to do so. Yet by the use of busing and other methods, we've made rare progress in dismantling a dual system of public schools in Florida.

"And I submit that until we find alternative ways of providing an equal opportunity for quality education for all, regardless of race, creed, color, or place of residence . . . until we can be sure that an end to busing won't lead to a return to segregated public schools . . . we must not take the risk of seriously undermining the spirit of the Constitution . . . . And we must not take the risk of returning to the kind of segregation, fear and misunderstanding which produced the very problem that led to busing in the first place."

Liberals rejoiced at the zeal in which this little-known southern governor crusaded against the anti-busing forces in those days. But they will likely find little to celebrate in his more recent declaration on the matter of gay rights.

Askew has said that he would never hire a homosexual to work on his staff. Asked about that recently, Askew 54, said, "I guess I have to rethink my position, but that's just the way I feel about it."

Homosexuality was always considered a foreign and taboo thing in his small-town southern experience, he said.

That background follows Askew everywhere he campaigns. He has been in each of the 50 states, often attracting no local media coverage, but almost always drawing the observation from someone that he is not the first small-town, born-again Baptist, former southern governor to run for president.

As it did, for example, in Mary Louise Hancock's living room in Concord, N.H., last month. She is a former state senator, and she invited a few people in to meet Askew, as she will be doing for many of those who are running for president.

"President Carter is a friend of mine," Askew begins, although in fact the two men were not really very fond of each other in the years they served as neighboring governors. "I served in his administration and I'm proud of that association."

That said, he goes on to put as much distance as he can between himself and his friend. He says that he is very much his own man, and that he has his own approach to things. Such as international human rights.

"I just don't believe President Carter's policy was that effective in trying to openly grade the countries of the world," he says. "But I don't think this Reagan administration shows enough concern for human rights. I would have to have a commitment to long-range improvement. But sometimes you impose a timetable that is unrealistic."

It begins to be a theme of distinction. Turning to domestic policy, for example, Askew says: "I think both President Reagan and President Carter . . . both set unrealistic goals."

Askew's immediate goal is to move from being an asterisk at the end of the list of presidential prospects to being the star of the 1984 Democratic presidential nominating convention. And while Askew draws no comfort from the frequent comparisons with Jimmy Carter as president, he and his aides take great and frequent comfort from drawing comparisons with Jimmy Carter as candidate.

As in: "We are better off now, a year before the first primary, than Jimmy Carter was at the beginning of 1975."

Actually, Askew is possessed of the same purposefulness, and determination bordering on political zealotry that characterized Carter's 1976 presidential campaign, which began in 1974.

Askew operates with full throttle and fixed rudder, which sometimes causes him to miss some of the lighter spots en route. At a Washington dinner honoring former senator and secretary of state Edmund S. Muskie last year, while the rest of the candidates were giving short and humorous speeches, Askew pounded out a ponderous discourse on policy.

The Askew line on the polls is that they don't matter.

"Sometimes we're listed and sometimes we're not," says press secretary James Bacchus. "Sometimes we have 1 percent and sometimes we don't. We don't care one whit."

Askew will be announcing his candidacy officially in Washington late in February. The event will be preceded by a series of fund-raisers, many of them in Florida. "Florida is a wealthy state," says Bacchus.

He plans to campaign heavily in Iowa, the first caucus state, and in New Hampshire, the first primary state, as well as in the other early primary states, many of which are in the South.

Back when Carter was campaigning in New Hampshire, he displayed the political facility of tailoring his positions so that, even if they did not quite please everybody, at least they did not quite enrage anybody. Askew does nothing of the sort.

And so, in Mary Louise Hancock's living room, he was scoring impressively with a dozen or so liberal New Hampshireites when one woman shyly and apologetically asked for his view on abortion.

"I do not support freedom of choice," Askew said flatly. "I believe life begins prior to birth . . . . Which abortions should be allowed? Rape? Incest? I really have a tough time with rape, but you know, that's an invasion of a woman's body."

Suddenly the room turned, and one by one those present told him they admired his stands on the other issues but they could not support him because of what he had said in opposition to abortion.

"It's a controversial position," Askew responded. "But you are what you are."