The possibility of a woman vice-presidential candidate is more real than ever for the 1984 elections, thanks to the gender gap that concerns both Republicans and Democrats.
The gender gap - the fact that male and female voting patterns differ - has shown up most dramatically on the Republican side, as fewer women than men support President Reagan. But for the Democrats, the women's vote could offer a margin of victory for their candidate. Women now make up a majority - 53 percent - of the voting-age population.
The idea of a female vice-presidential candidate is not new. For example, political activist Frances Farenthold of Texas was considered in 1972. But the idea has never been seriously pursued.
But today, eager candidates see the women's vote as a potentially powerful bloc. While Mr. Reagan reaches out to female voters with speeches to GOP women's groups and appointments of women to government positions, six Democratic hopefuls have endorsed the idea of bringing a woman to the second-highest elective post in the nation.
It's about time, political observers say.
''At this moment, women are being considered because of political reasons, of course,'' says Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. ''It is a political plus to talk about elevating women to positions of leadership.''
But, Dr. Mandel says, there are plenty of women who merit the position. ''A lot of women who have held or are holding political office have distinct political and professional strengths.''
Polls show that although most voters say a woman on the ticket would not affect their vote one way or the other, many would like to see more women in public office. Some 80 percent say they would vote for a female vice-president.
''There is no possibility of a negative impact, and great possibility of a positive one,'' says Eleanor Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women.
Not all believe it is an idea whose time has come. Former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, whose name has been mentioned as a candidate, said recently on National Public Radio that she doesn't think voters are willing to elect a female vice-president. Some critics say that women don't yet have the breadth and length of service to qualify them for such a high post.
But that doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of supporters.
The gender gap is real, according to feminists, pollsters, and some White House strategists. Mrs. Smeal points out that women from all political persuasions - from conservative to liberal - are tired of ''sitting on the sidelines,'' and want more say at all levels of national politics.
Names that come up on almost any list of potential candidates range from experienced congresswomen to state and city political leaders. Although President Reagan appears sure to stay with George Bush as his running mate, several Republican women have been mentioned, including Rep. Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island and Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas.
But attention is focused on Democrats. These women include:
Lindy (Mrs. Hale) Boggs of Louisiana. Mrs. Boggs took over her husband's seat after he was killed in a plane crash in 1972. She is well liked in the Democratic Party, after years of working with her husband. Mrs. Boggs tends to be generous on social programs, but is more conservative on such issues as abortion.
Shirley A. Chisholm. She was the first black woman to serve in the House, representing a Brooklyn district. Mrs. Chisholm now teaches at Mount Holyoke College. After 14 years in the House championing issues that affect minorities and women, she retired. Mrs. Chisholm made a brief bid for the presidency in 1972.
Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco. She took over the job after Mayor George Moscone was assassinated in 1978, and has held a firm rein on the city ever since. During a recent recall election, the mayor was supported by some 80 percent of the voters. She is known for her skilled fiscal leadership.
Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York. She has been termed the most influential of the new generation of women politicians. Congresswoman Ferraro, secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, has pushed for economic equality for women and wrote the major women's rights statement at the Democratic midterm conference.
Martha Griffiths, lieutenant governor of Michigan. Mrs. Griffiths served 20 years in Congress, with a distinguished record for equal rights, pension and social security reform, and economic equality for both men and women.
Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland. A social worker from Baltimore, Miss Mikulski has been keenly interested in social service programs and consumerism. She is a dove on foreign affairs and supports labor. Observers say she is a ''great public speaker who can get a crowd feeling enthusiastic.''
Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado. A lawyer elected to Congress in 1972 in her first bid for public office, Congresswoman Schroeder has been an outspoken advocate for women's rights and a critic of military spending. With her experience on various congressional committees, she is ''a part of the Democratic leadership,'' one watcher notes.
Many of these women are interested in a vice-presidential slot.
''As for myself, I welcome it,'' says Lieutenant Governor Griffiths, frequently mentioned on lists of contenders. ''Of course it would mean a winner for the ticket if a woman ran.''
Congresswoman Schroeder, whose name seems to top many lists, says she is flattered. But she says the idea is 99.9 percent conjecture right now.