Is the puckish Richard Tuck the Peter Pan of politics? A fellow full of mischief who will never grow up?
Or is he a devious imp whose disruptive pranks have thwarted serious political business with dirty tricks?
Take your pick. For more than three decades, whenever national politics has become light comedy (and mostly Democrats are laughing), it has probably been the whimsical work of Dick Tuck.
This longtime political consultant-at-large - whose capers have earned him a national reputation, particularly during the Nixon and Goldwater presidential campaigns - has recently been occupying himself with moviemaking and long winters on the Aspen ski slopes.
What has lured him back into the fray this season is the bid of an old college chum in Santa Barbara, Calif., a liberal professor of ancient Greek history, Frank Frost, to become US representative in Ronald Reagan's home district.
Adding to the tempting symbolism of this race, for Mr. Tuck, is the fact that the veteran incumbent, Republican Robert Lagomarsino, is rated one of the five most loyal Reagan supporters in the House by Congressional Quarterly.
So to Dick Tuck and the Frost campaign, it is a test of Ronald Reagan's policies in his own back yard.
It was here in Santa Barbara, in 1950, that Tuck began his career as a political prankster. It was a mild caper. Richard Nixon, then a US representative, was running for the Senate, and Tuck worked for his Democratic opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas. He invited Mr. Nixon to speak on the International Monetary Fund, a sleepy subject for any campaign, and he heard Nixon come through with ''one of the most disjointed speeches I've ever heard.''
Nixon was to become one of Dick Tuck's prime targets. Perhaps their most famous encounter was in 1962, when Nixon was beginning a whistle-stop campaign speech from the rear platform of a train in San Luis Obispo. Tuck slipped into a phone booth, came out with a trainman's hat on, and signaled the engineer to pull away.
''Nixon saw the crowd go out like the morning tide,'' recounts Tuck gleefully. To those who say he goes too far, he jibes that Nixon's own dirty trickster, Donald Segretti, would have backed the train into the crowd. ''No subtlety,'' he says.
The current race in Santa Barbara promised two California trips by President Reagan - perfect fodder for Tuck caprice. But the comic possibilities were narrowed, first when the President canceled a trip West in early October, and then when he decided to avoid his home district altogether and vote by absentee ballot.
''I was teasing (White House spokesman Larry) Speakes about it on the phone, '' Tuck says. ''The truth is, the race in Santa Barbara is a referendum on the President.''
Nevertheless, Tuck flew in from New York in mid-October and, wearing a bright yellow and blue rugby shirt, his gray hair loosely combed, headed up to Santa Barbara to spend two weeks as a campaign adviser to Frank Frost.
Frost is the kind of politician Tuck likes. He is not a professional officeholder, and - with a $50,000 campaign budget - he is certainly not spending a lot of money.
Generally, Tuck is disillusioned with the quality of campaigns and candidates these days. Congress, he says, is manned by ''a bunch of empty three-piece suits with large staffs'' and campaigns, under the growing influence of Madison Avenue, have been saturated with negativism.
Since Tuck's arrival in Santa Barbara, Representative Lagomarsino has sent up warnings of dirty tricks, saying his coming is a signal of a low-level campaign to come.
''I've made a lot of candidates look foolish,'' Tuck says, ''usually with a lot of help from the candidates themselves.''
'It seems out of place,'' Lagomarsino campaign spokesman John Doherty says of Tuck's role. ''What enlightenment can he possibly add? We don't know whether Frost is just trying to add some levity to the campaign, or is planning something nasty.''
Tuck insists he doesn't fit the description of a no-holds-barred practical joker. He professes a concern for truth and fair play, though his judgment is certainly open to dispute.
''I always used to hate the word 'prank,' '' he says. ''I don't consider the Boston Tea Party a prank.'' Rather, it was a staged event with an important political message, he says. He likes to view his doings in the same way.
For example, in 1956 Richard Nixon's brother Donald received a $216,000 loan from the Hughes Tool Company on an unsecured note. No one, says Tuck, would talk about it.
So in 1962, when Nixon was running for president against Tuck's ''friend,'' Sen. John F. Kennedy, Nixon made a campaign visit to Chinatown in Los Angeles. There, the ever-ready Tuck had arranged for him to be greeted by a sign that read ''Welcome Nixon'' in English, and in Chinese enquired, ''What about the Hughes loan?''
Nixon posed underneath gladly, until a Chinese Republican translated it for him. Then he tore up a sign before the television cameras. This way, says Tuck, the whole Hughes loan story had to be explained on the evening news.
(''Chinese scholar that I am,'' he acknowledges, ''the sign turned out to say , 'What about the huge loan?' '' The message came through just the same.)
Two questions Tuck asks of his pranks are these: Is it true, and is it relevant? He claims to steer clear of the strictly personal. ''The fact that your grandfather was a horse thief, that's not relevant,'' he says.
On the other hand, when John Connally was accused of taking bribes from milk producers during the Watergate trial, Tuck found himself in the same restaurant with him.
So Tuck sent the wealthy Texan his greetings, attached to a champagne bucket, with instructions to the waiter that only Connally himself was to lift the towel over the bucket. In it was a quart of milk.
''I knew he would get off, and it was probably the only embarrassment he would get.''
Richard Tuck is an Arizonan who majored in public administration at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He owns part of a small Santa Barbara ranch and has an interest in a restaurant in Aspen. He will ski probably 60 to 70 days this winter, he figures.
As always, he says coyly, he is ''independently poor.'' ''I've never had a job,'' he says, ''and it's too late now.'' But he has left his whimsical touch on many campaigns.
In 1958, working for Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, who was running for governor of California against publishing tycoon and then-US Senator William Knowland, Tuck managed to insert in all the fortune cookies at a Knowland dinner, ''Knowland for Premier of Formosa.''
In an above-board move, Tuck used to travel with the Nixon campaign train and record Nixon's off-the-cuff comments and responses to local reporters. He then edited them down and sent the tapes to Kennedy, who used them to prepare for the debate.
In 1964, Tuck badgered Barry Goldwater all across the country with satirical leaflets he penned and passed out to Goldwater crowds. At one point he smuggled a leggy young woman posing as a freelance writer onto the Goldwater campaign train. She slipped two editions of a Tuck-written newsletter under compartment doors before she was found out.
In 1966, says Tuck, Pat Brown was running against Ronald Reagan for the California governorship, and it was a different world then. ''We always had spies in each other's headquarters.''
The Brown spy ran the Reagan campaign's copy machine, and he always made a spare copy of everything. Among the pirated copies the Brown staff would find notes made by Reagan himself. They showed him to be a far more astute politician than most of his advisers. ''This idea that he was just an actor was all wrong, '' says Tuck.
On Reagan today, he is in his typical puckish form: ''Anybody who takes off the month of August can't be all bad.''