THE SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE White House Conference on Small Business that met last August and the conference of the same name that met under Jimmy Carter's auspices in 1980 were only on the surface. They met at the same hotel, registered about the same number of delegates, and left in their respective wakes 60 recommendations for things that the federal government either should do or should stop doing.

The differences between them were more telling.

The clothes, for instance. Back in 1980, people put imagination into their headgear, lapel buttons, and T-shirts. But among the 1,823 delegates to the 1986 conference, only two, both of them women, came up with funny hats. One man wandered around the Washington Hilton for part of a day wearing an orange protective suit. If the possibility of fire worried him, he'd come to the wrong convention. These people were cool.

"We're much more sophisticated in dealing with the federal government than we were back in '80," said Bill Fletcher, a New Hampshire delegate to this session and to Carter's conference six years ago. "We've been to Washington before, "Fletcher pointed out, "and in '80 we hadn't. Maybe it takes away some of the excitement, but it means that people here are much more likely to get something done."

In 1980 President Carter drove from the White House to the Hilton to talk to the delegates, but the national press ignored the conference. In 1986 The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Associated Press, Newsweek, and USA Today, among others, sent reporters. The Wall Street Journal sent two.Ronald Reagan left town on vacation.

Out of hundreds of proposed recommendations for legislative or administrative governmental action, the delegates to both conferences selected 60 to send to the President and to Congress. The recommendation receiving the second highest vote in 1986, number 203, urged Congress not to require employers to grant parental leave to employees.

Judi Schindler, a delegate from Illinois and a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) voted for number 203. "In 1980," she said, "we were more factionalized. There were women in business, minorities in business, veterans in business. In '80, NAWBO had a women's agenda. We tried to form coalitions with minorities. There was lots of politics. This year women and minorities are not here just for their own self-interest. For example, we're supporting 203. In '80 we'd have fought it, just because it's women's thing and we would have had to wave the banner."

Of the top-10 recommendations made by the '80 conference, 8 related to taxes. In '86, only 2 of 10 had anything to do with taxes. Balancing the budget ranked third in '80, fourth in '86. Six of the 1980 top-10 recommendations addressed issues exclusively or primarily of concern to small businesses -- graduated corporate taxes, for example, and small-business participating debentures. In '86, only 2 were quite so self-concerned. "We're much more worldy and sophisticated," explained Tim Fine, chairman of the northern California delegation.

Only 14% of the delegates in Washington in August were veterans of the earlier conference. Those who were -- Bill Nourse, for example -- tended to take leadership positions with substantial influence. Nourse headed the Tennessee delegation. Jack Rennie of Massachusetts chaired the conference sessions on government procurement. Mary Diener of North Carolina assisted on the rules committee. She was pleased, she said, that there were no "incidents" this year, no one stalking out of issue sessions because he or she hadn't gotten his or her way. "That was childish behavior," Diener said.

"I came here in 1980," Bill Nourse explained, "knowing nothing. . . . Since then I've come to have a healthy respect for the system, and so I want to work within it. . . . I don't distrust Washington anymore."

The event attracted 140 foreign observers from 39 countries, from Antigua to Turkey. They could wander about at will, taking in whatever they chose. Matthias Ocker, secretary-general of a Pan-European organization of small and midsize companies, was "astonished" at the large number of delegates and the variety of issues they were hoping to settle. All that populism and democracy seemed awfully noisy and untidy. Ocker would have preferred something more orderly. "Maybe," he suggested, "you should have just 10 delegates per state and form them into committees."

Gerhard Zeitel, an official of Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union party who concerns himself with small-business affairs there, appeared unimpressed. "There is more celebration than substance here," he said after listening to Tom Peters preach lustily to the cheers of the already converted.

The transcending theme of the 1980 conference was get the government off our backs and out of our pockets. In 1986, delegates came determined to save a piece of the government -- the Small Business Administration -- that Ronald Reagan has been trying to get off his back. Save the SBA would probably have finished first among the delegates' 60 recommendations but for the hamhanded inepititude of the National Federation of Independent Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- two allegedly sophisticated Washington lobbying groups. At the midway point in the conference, delegates clearly preferred a resolution calling for preservation of the SBA in its current state. The Chamber and NFIB, operating on what delegates took to be Reagan Administration orders, pushed a second resolution that was less specific. With the votes split, neither resolution finished in the top slot. If that bit of maneuvering earned the two lobbying groups points with Washington pols, it cost them dearly in delegate goodwill.

But Save the SBA? Six years ago you couldn't have filled a small closet with the agency's supporters. What happened to "get the government off our backs"? "These people," said Allen Neece, himself a lobbyist, "are no longer angry. They're mellow. The federal government isn't the enemy anymore."

In 1980 Bob Crane and his guitar hitchhiked to Washington from Montana. To protest the then-high inflation rate, Crane tried to pay his $60 conference registration fee with three silver dollars.During his 12-day trek, however, the value of the silver had risen to $75. The conference registrar gave him $15 in change.

I looked for Crane this year. He wasn't there -- or I couldn't find him. Maybe he was hiding out in a business suit.