Portland, Maine — Traditionally the presidential campaign has its beginnings at the governors' conference preceding the campaign year. Significantly, it didn't happen here. Politics, indeed, was muted. Instead, the governors concentrated on how better to improve government, at both the federal and state level. Through their resolutions and expressions of opinion they doubtless hoped to prod action that would deal with such problems as the budget deficit in Washington and acid rain in various parts of the country.
They discussed how best to improve education and transportation. And they nodded their heads sagely when economist Alan Greenspan told them a summit between the Reagan administration and congressional leaders should be held ''before or soon after'' the 1984 election to deal with urgent economic problems.
But, to be frank with you, friends, this conference was dull, dull, dull - certainly from the viewpoint of the mob of reporters who came here expecting to witness some political fireworks.
Where was ''Rocky'' with his ''Hiya, fellas!'' to one and all as he swept through the halls of the hotels and meeting places? Where was Adlai with his elegant style and his wonderful quips? Where are they all - those governors of colorful yesterday who used to give these conferences a little life as well as a little class?
This current group, with a three-fifths Democratic coloration, is made up of a lot of serious and shrewd, if lackluster, governors.
Actually, New York's chief executive, Mario Cuomo, is a very lively politician with lots of bounce. He's probably got more political oomph than any of the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates. But Cuomo somehow didn't make it here to Portland. No doubt he had priorities to take care of in Albany. But the suspicion voiced around here by some observers is that Cuomo is smart enough to skip a dull party, even if in so doing he has to pass up this delightful, invigorating Maine air.
A Rockefeller did show up, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. But he's no ''Rocky'' in terms of political appeal and sheer personableness. He's tall, very tall, and quite able. But he tends to blend quickly into a group that could pass for a gathering of corporate executives.
Maybe all this means is that the states are getting more conscientious and thoughtful and skillful governors and, hence, better government. Good, if that is true. But, again, such a group doesn't put on an exciting governors' conference - certainly not one that takes on the appearance of the semipolitical convention that otherwise might have been forthcoming.
The President is partly to blame for the subdued tone here. As a governor he, too, brought a lot of excitement with him when he attended these sessions.
Who will forget how on a governors' conference aboard ship, en route to the Virgin Islands, a private message intended for another colorful governor, John Connolly, actually got into Reagan's hands? Reagan disclosed the contents of that wire, evoking accusations of unethical conduct as well as causing a bit of an uproar. Oh, those good old days!
Obviously if the President had attended this conference, he would have pepped it up quite a bit. And it used to be traditional for presidents to attend these meetings and give a rip-roaring speech, particularly on the eve of a campaign year. Instead, Mr. Reagan was down in hot, humid Atlanta, talking to the American Bar Association. He sent his vice-president here in his place. Bush did a good job; but he didn't fire anyone up.
Perhaps better government will stem from this gathering. The so-called ''good old days'' were marked by a good deal of tardiness and golf and swimming and fun. Now the governors - most of them anyway - were working hard, attending all sessions. One would certainly hope that something good would come of all these sober-minded people and their almost grim deliberations.