In the limited warfare of a political campaign, accurate intelligence on opposition plans always has been a high priority. Vacuuming up all the information available from the other side is standard and approved practice, but spying is not, a number of political operatives and historians said in interviews last week.

The morality of the acquisition of documents and information from the Carter White House and presidential campaign by the Reagan campaign in 1980 depends, most of them said, not on the papers' volume or usefulness but on the answer to the mystery of how they reached the Reagan camp. Only a minority contended that anything from inside the other headquarters is too tainted to touch.

"Politics is a grab for power," said Theodore H. White, whose histories of presidential campaigns back to 1956 have given him an intimate acquaintance with political intelligence operations. "You use whatever you can get."

But, White added, "you draw the line at breaking and entering"--as occurred in the raid on the Democrats' Watergate headquarters by operatives of Richard M. Nixon's 1972 reelection committee. That has not been alleged in the current controversy.

Others drew a finer line--against aiding, abetting or encouraging voluntary offers of inside information from the opposition. "I'd stay away from anything taken from others," said Sergio Bendixen, manager of the presidential campaign of Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). "But if someone hands it to you voluntarily, that's probably okay.

"If you go out of your way to get it, that's where the line is. It would be wrong, for instance, for me to pay to get the Mondale campaign plans."

Not only wrong, but foolish. Political professionals in both parties agreed that both media and public standards of political morality have been raised by Watergate and that the risks of being caught tampering are far greater than before that "third-rate burglary" cost a president his office.

"The morality can be overwhelmed by the practicality, the usefulness to your campaign versus the danger," said Matt Reese, a veteran political consultant. "The press will focus on it and people will be receptive to the idea of chicanery."

There were examples of that heightened awareness in the first post-Watergate presidential campaign in 1976.

Martin Schram, in his book, "Running for President," reported that Terry Bracy, an assistant to Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), then vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, refused the offer of Jimmy Carter campaign files from a recently fired Carter aide. Bracy not only rejected the information but also informed Hamilton Jordan, Carter's top aide, of the name of the disgruntled ex-employe.

At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, according to Richard Reeves' book, "Convention," Carter aide Barry Jagoda spiked a plan by other Carterites to install sophisticated electronic equipment in Madison Square Garden that would have enabled the Carter team to monitor the internal communications of others in the hall, including the television networks.

"You must be crazy," Jagoda shouted at them. "Didn't you ever hear of Watergate? If somebody finds out, it'll destroy Carter."

But politics has traditionally tolerated a substantial degree of chicanery. Whispering campaigns, with rumors attributed--but not traceable--to the opposition camp, last-minute smears, anonymous literature and undocumented charges have been part of the political currency of many campaigns.

In presidential campaigns, it has been almost routine for supporters of one candidate to station a few people, with derogatory banners, along the opposition candidate's motorcade route, or outside his rally site. In open forums and radio call-ins, the opposition works to put the targeted candidate on the spot.

But, in all this, there has been a tradition of respecting the sanctity of opposing candidates' headquarters and entourage, to a point.

In 1964, Dick Tuck, a California Democratic operative who had virtually made a career of harassing Nixon at campaign appearances, slipped a "spy" aboard the campaign train of Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.), the Republican candidate. The young woman--a volunteer at the Democratic National Committee--distributed two copies of a satirical campaign paper to reporters aboard the train before being discovered and put off the train. There was no evidence that she had tried to obtain any information from the Goldwater people.

But Stephen Shadegg, one of the managers of that and other Goldwater campaigns, said, "my office in Arizona has been burglarized three times in three different campaigns . . . . I have had people sift through my trash. A political campaign is a war. There are no rules of etiquette, as long as you don't do something immoral."

But even conventional morality is sometimes flouted.

David Keene, a Republican consultant who was political director of George Bush's bid for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination, recalled that he lost his race for a Wisconsin state senate seat in 1970 because "a girl who was working for the Democrats was having an affair with my press secretary."

Keene's final-week strategy was built around a letter of endorsement from President Nixon. But the Democrats, he said, learned of the letter from the girl and undercut his plans by telling the local newspapers in advance that they would be getting false notices of an endorsement.

The standards are not necessarily higher at higher levels of politics.

Tuck, in a 1964 television interview, said the Democrats got so much information from inside the Goldwater campaign that it produced what he called "paranoia" in Goldwater's camp. "They got worried about some of their most trusted people," he said.

George Reedy, who served as White House press secretary to President Johnson and is now a professor of journalism at Marquette University, said the Johnson campaign wasted a lot of time on information from disgruntled Goldwater campaign aides.

"We got a lot of trivial nonsense," he recalled. "There were a lot of promises to uncork all sorts of scandals that never came about. I was at odds with them on that because I thought we should stay in the White House. Goldwater was the best vote-getter for us."

In 1968, according to Seymour M. Hersh in his new book, "The Price of Power," two Republicans, Henry A. Kissinger and Bryce N. Harlow, funneled information from inside the Johnson White House to the Nixon campaign about the course of Vietnam peace negotiations.

In the same campaign, according to White's account in "The Making of the President, 1968," Johnson learned through a wiretap that Anna C. Chennault, a major fund-raiser for Nixon, had persuaded officials of the Saigon government to balk at joining Vietnam peace talks, promising them a "better deal" if Nixon became president. Johnson complained to Nixon, but Hubert H. Humphrey, Nixon's Democratic opponent, declined to make the incident public in the campaign's final days because of what White called his "essentially decent" feeling that Nixon was not involved.

Ronald Reagan himself, as California governor, was involved in an earlier incident of misappropriated or misdirected papers.

In 1967, the national governors' conference was held on a cruise ship to the Virgin Islands. A cablegram from the Johnson White House to presidential liaison Price Daniel, outlining strategy for lobbying Republican governors to back a resolution of support for Johnson's Vietnam policy to be voted on the following day, somehow fell into the hands of Reagan's press secretary, Lyn Nofziger. He gleefully distributed it to reporters and Reagan used it in debate on the resolution, saying it had been delivered to him by mistake.

A number of the political practitioners interviewed stressed that in the chaotic conditions and pressures of a campaign, there is a constant swirl of information and misinformation flowing between opposition camps.

Most is oral, they said, from conversations between staffers or through third parties--frequently reporters. But there are underground channels of campaign volunteers who often become disgruntled when their talents or ideas are ignored by one side and who seek to advance themselves by trading their "inside" information to the opposition.

Reedy said that usually when "people think there is a spy ring . . . there are just disgruntled people hanging around. The White House is particularly vulnerable to this because you inherit a certain number of people at lower levels from the previous administrations. They have little or nothing in common with the new people and it's easy to get disgruntled . . . and start sending out stuff."

Campaigns have always tried to screen their volunteers, but have been able to do so only imperfectly, and consequently have expected a degree of espionage. But campaign officials have usually been wary of information volunteered by someone who claims to be an insider with the opposition. Most often, they said, it has been implausible, duplicative of well-known information or obviously self-serving.

But still they have often tried to fit such information into a picture of what the other side is doing.

"I sit down for a beer with my opposite number," said a former campaign press secretary, "and the conversation is casual on the surface, but we both know what we're doing: we're checking each other out, and learning what we can."

Some politicians have contended that it is wrong to accept any information from the other camp.

"Just to accept it is highly dishonorable and unethical," said former Wisconsin Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson. "If you'll accept it, you'll go around and solicit it, or--as in the case of Watergate--you'll go out and try to get it with a little burglary."

Most of those interviewed said, however, that information obtained legally or volunteered is considered fair game.

"I'm not a saint, and I'm not saying I wouldn't use information that came to me over the transom," said former Carter campaign chairman Robert S. Strauss. But as to the current controversy, "I think the way this thing is being pictured--and I don't know all the facts, as yet--it's a disservice to the politicians of both parties who keep their campaigns clean and above-board."

Leon Billings, former director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was in general agreement.

"If something comes over the transom unsolicited, then you use your own judgment on what you do with it," he said. "But it is obviously unacceptable to plant spies or pay spies. Otherwise, you are not willing to accept the possibility of losing--and that is not our politics."