"This is going to be a great race for bookmakers," a local member of that profession predicted the other day.

"It's like a Redskin-Cowboy game. Nobody's neutral. They either love Reagan or they hate Reagan. Or they love Carter. Or they hate Carter. Everybody's got an opinion. You couldn't ask for a better proposition."

For people concerned about the future of America, the choice between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter may evoke a measure of despair. But for people who like to put their money on the outcome of future events, it would be difficult to find a more fascinating matchup.

There are elements in the race that make bettors on each side think they have a mortal lock. Plus, there are some wild cards in all the calculations: the hostages, the debates, the possibility of a fatal Reagan fluff.

While most ordinary bookmakers won't open shop until closer to the election, the odds already have been gyrating widly.

The only legal wagering on the election is conducted in England, where the famed bookmaking firm, Ladbroke's, has made Carter a narrow 4-to-5 favorite, with Reagan even money. Ladbroke's recently cut the price on John Anderson from 33 to 1 to 12 to 1.

Even though election gambling is nominally illegal in Las Vegas, there is so much man-to-man action and betting in "underground" bookmaking establishments that odds on the race are clearly established. After the Republican convention, Reagan was a solid 5-to-2 favorite.

Since then, however, the odds against Carter have shortened and both bettors and oddsmakers have become very wary of all the uncertainties in the race.

Yet, even though the polls show the two candidates in a virtual dead heat, the Vegas congnoscenti still made Reagan the clear favorite. Bookmakers there are quoting him at a price of 6 to 8, meaning that somebody betting Reagan risks $8 to win $5, while a Carter backer rises $5 to win $6. In man-to-man action, Reagan is favored at 7 to 5.

"The 7 to 5 is a solid figure now," one of the top Vegas oddsmakers said, "but most of the big money is waiting because of the Anderson factor. "You've got to be some kind of smart to gauge-his effect, particularly in New York. Anderson's got everybody puzzled."

Besides Anderson, the debates have to be another of the key factors in handicapping this election. The Post suggested yesterday that Carter's empty chair may be the winner against Reagan and Anderson Sunday night. But I'm betting against this notion. I have already put my money on Reagan (at even money against some soft-headed Democrats) on the theory that he will make a resurgence in the polls because of the debates.

Americans seem to watch televised-political activity as critically as they watch "Love Boat." Media exposure helps candidates move up un the polls as long as their performance is anything short of a disaster. Carter hardly looked like a great leader at the Democratic convention and still skyrocketed in the polls afterward.

A substantial number of voters are sufficiently disaffected with the Democrats that they will vote for Reagan if they can be persuaded he is not a madman or a moron. Reagan ought do this on Sunday. He and Anderson will probably be smart enough to handle each other with kid gloves while blasting Carter. They will probably both emerge from the debate looking like reasonable, intelligent men.

Or so I hope. At least I have a rooting interest in what happens Sunday night and for the rest of the campaign.

This, or course, is one of the great virtues of gambling: It can stimulate interest in anything. A small wager can turn a Seattle-green Bay football game into a riveting experience. It can even make a person care about the pronouncments of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Before I bet the election, I was one of millions of disaffected American voters. Now I finally feel that I have a stake in the political process.