It looks like that happy little band of eternal optimists is back at the controls of the Republican Party.

For months, the Reagan people peered down into the black hole of the gender gap and issued gloomy reports. Now they are coming out of the same statistical valley positively glowing.

According to rececent stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times, the powerful positive thinkers in the White House are rewriting the gender-gap analysis. The problem isn't that the Republicans are having trouble with women; it's that the Democrats are having trouble with men. The problem isn't that women are peculiarly disaffected from Reagan; it's that men are peculiarly attracted to Reagan.

Fortune magazine, not what you would call a Democratic tip sheet, is currently floating the same notion. Its column, "Keeping Up," finds the Democrats to be "in trouble with the male sex."

As the author puts it with such grace and tolerance, "We say that Reaganism increasingly benefits from the gender gap and further aver that the Democrats do not have an Oriental gentleman's chance of prevailing next year unless they wise up gap-wise."

How do we account for the sudden reversal of gender-gap history. A feat of optimistic alchemy? Ann Lewis, the political director of the Democratic National Committee, suggested that the Republicans know they have a lemon, but they're trying to make lemonade from it.

A liberal Republican repeated to me the story about the optimist who was given a room full of horse manure for Christmas and began shoveling furiously. Somewhere in all of this, he told himself, there has to be a pony.

But putting aside the ponies and lemonade, there is some truth here. There are always two sides to any gap, two ways to read the same statistics.

At the end of the 1980 election, it was clear that both sexes had changed. Millions of men had strayed from the leadership of the Democratic Party. Millions of women had strayed from the leadership of men.

In the past couple of years, women's feelings about Reagan have remained relatively (and negatively) constant, while men have been far more fickle. The recent New York Times/CBS poll showed an 18-point gap between the sexes. A full 57 percent of men approved of Reagan's job performance, while only 39 percent of women approved.

In one way this poll charted the male gap. It was men, after all, who changed their minds. In two months' time, they increased their approval of Reagan by nine percent. But it also charted a female gap, because women aren't followers anymore. They are holding on to their political ideas and standards. Female disapproval stayed virtually the same.

The whole thing begins to sound like a game of smantics--whose gap is it, the boys or the girls?--but it's actually a game of politics.

Go back for a moment to the ponies and lemonade. The Reaganites have virtually written off black voters. They can hardly get into the double digits of approval. Do the cockeyed optimists in the White House thinks it's possible to more or less write off women as well and win with white males? It's beginning to look that way.

For a time this spring, the administration made a play for women voters. There are two female Cabinet appointments, a flurry of sensitivity sessions, and sudden support on a handful of women's issues from child care to pensions. Lately the White House has taken to inviting women to dinner, and the party has adopted astronaut Sally Ride as if she were a Republican appointee.

Flattery, however, has gotten them nowhere in the polls. The gut issues for women are still those labeled "peace" and "fairness." The reality is that it may not be possible for a president with a bellicose foreign policy and stringent social welfare policy to remain true to his beliefs and attractive to women voters.

The official optimist may be signaling a turning point. Instead of trying to narrow the gender gap by the superficial wooing of women, the Republican regulars may try to widen it by wooing men.

That course would be more comfortable for the Reaganites. After all, as our Fortune teller says, the way to "get back in the ball game with the gents" is to "first, forget about the feminist agenda ... second, position yourself as favorable to defense and opposed to social spending."

Then, you might even learn how to make lemonade.

Copyright (c) 1983, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company