I crunched in the snow all over New Hampshire with Ronald Reagan in the primary of January 1976 and have thought about it a good deal since. Mr. Reagan was ex-governor of California trying to get the GOP presidential nomination. I wrote in this paper that ''his views are sharp, conservative, and controversial, expressed with fewer qualifications than most candidates use.'' He was ''friendly and easy-mannered. . . .'' He was trying to sell what I considered an extraordinary proposal: New Hampshire, he claimed, was ''sending $115 million a year to the Washington government but getting back only $100 million in return services.'' Why not keep the money at home and ''save'' $15 million?
I wrote about it in the Monitor of Jan. 13. I and another reporter met him at the airport. I asked if the $115 million didn't include paying for the military and the federal highways - and what was the source of his figures? I wrote:
''Mr. Reagan appeared taken aback. ''I never understood it that way,'' he replied, ''If I'm mistaken I stand corrected.'' He said he could not remember the source of the statistic. He was engaging and disarming. If his figures were inaccurate, he assured us, he would correct them. . . . The scene of eight years ago fades out.
Mr. Reagan today is as affable and likable as ever and is running for office. The campaign has just started. I think Americans forget just how sharp a presidential campaign becomes. I believe this has already begun. Mr. Reagan has two difficult hurdles: the Lebanon adventure which was a disaster and a deficit that hangs over our heads. I don't know who Democrats will nominate. But I suspect the present good-natured calm will seem unreal just around the political bend.
Economic columnist Hobart Rowen and others warn the President that ''the markets are sending a message.'' They may recover the recent decline, he says, or on the other hand we could have a ''Wall Street tumble that dwarfs the 10 percent decline over the past six weeks.''
A Washington reporter listens to Mr. Reagan and seems to hear echoes from that optimistic presidential candidate in New Hampshire eight years ago. Just last month in his press conference Mr. Reagan preserved his always hopeful mood. It is not a comfortable position. He denied that the United States has ''cut and run'' in Lebanon. He denies that he is ''underestimating'' deficits. He indicated the economy is going from strength to strength. He blames Democrats for withholding cooperation. He incidentally voices his strong and controversial views: ''Raising taxes doesn't reduce a deficit. Raising taxes creates more government spending!''
There are genuine doubts. There is a dangerous international trade deficit. Economist Henry Kaufman fears that a major contest could be shaping up between a US budget out of control and a defense monetary policy at the Fed, that might force interest rates up (and the cost of buying cars and real estate). Many orthodox economists feel taxes must be raised, defense cut, belts tightened. The Wall Street Journal in a front-page analysis this week points in alarm again at the national debt; it is ''rocketing upward.''
Democrats are bound to quote the GOP's earlier disdain at Reagan proposals - a ''riverboat gamble'' (Senate majority leader Howard Baker), and the ''voodoo economics'' term applied to the Kemp-Roth program. On television this week some watched suave, urbane House majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas reply to some of the President's charges against Democrats and the economic emergency. ''He (Mr. Reagan) said that they had a very difficult time ever getting us (Democrats) to meet. That was not true at all.''
I sense the tumult from afar. And this contest may be bitter. Some jibes are already directed at the two leaders on the Democratic side. Now it begins on President Reagan himself. Columnist Thomas Griffith of Time magazine puts down a complaint frequently heard by newsmen of the President's neat homilies, that ''his facts often turn out to be wrong.'' Taunts will grow sharper. In this case the administration must do a lot of explaining about Lebanon. Also about its deficits preceded by the biggest tax cuts in history. Representative Wright already charges that the Reagan administration in four years is ''adding more to the national debt than in all the years since World War II - a trillion dollars.'' An election is fun to watch as a bystander sport. But in this case we're all involved.