The nuclear freeze may have lost, but its near victory in the House of Representatives last week shows that the movement that has swept through town meetings from New England to Colorado has clout.
Nowhere is that message clearer than in the Reagan administration, which gave little attention to the freeze vote until the final days. Then, a clearly alarmed White House launched a massive last-minute effort to defeat a freeze resolution that it said would tie the hands of Americans negotiating arms control with the Soviets.
Even after calls and letters to virtually every wavering House member, President Reagan could muster only a two-vote margin of victory. By 204 to 202, the House approved a mildly worded Reagan-backed resolution that urges an arms agreement. Freeze advocates, meanwhile, were pushing for a statement calling on the US and Soviet Union to halt the buildup of atomic weapons immediately.
The closeness of the vote revealed a clearly election-jittery House. Members are watching the anti-nuclear feelings showing up in nationwide polls as well as the pro-defense views prevailing in some districts.
Nuclear freeze proponents, who are calling the vote a political victory, are vowing that the issue will be a big one in the November elections. Reuben McCornack, Washington representative of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, says despite disappointment over the loss, ''We achieved our main objective, which was to put the members on record as to where they stand on the freeze.''
While the freeze question will not necessarily sway the entire election, ''there will be a number of campaigns where this will be a major issue,'' he says, echoing other political observers in Washington.
In some areas of the country, however, backing the freeze could be a liability. In his region, voting for an immediate freeze would have a negative impact second only to raising taxes, says one Texas congressman.
The clearest political test of the freeze movement will probably be the New York race between Rep. Peter A. Peyser, a Democrat who has won the endorsement of local freeze groups, and Rep. Benjamin Gilman, a Republican who has backed the President's stand.
Although Mr. Peyser is attempting to paint his opponent with a Reaganomics brush, the nuclear issue is the one clear distinction between the two. ''I am making this one of the major issues of the campaign,'' says Peyser.
It's little surprise that he is, since a questionnaire he sent out got 12,000 replies in which 80 percent favored an ''immediate, mutual, and verifiable 'freeze' on development and deployment of new nuclear weapons.''
In another race, a challenger is trying to use the nuclear freeze issue to unseat Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R) of Illinois. LeRoy E. Kennel charges that Mr. Hyde, a prominent abortion foe, is not a true ''pro-life'' advocate since he opposes an immediate freeze.
In the long run, the House fight over the freeze was one of symbols. Neither resolution would be legally binding, and both called for reducing atomic weaponry. The difference is timing. The nuclear freeze movement wants both superpowers to stop the buildup now, then negotiate for reductions.
The Reagan administration and its supporters charge that to freeze now would be to lock the US into an inferior position. They want to negotiate now, while continuing to ''modernize'' US weapons.