SANTA BARBARA — For the first time in four presidential campaigns, Ronald Reagan is sitting on the sidelines, his aides and longtime advisers casting about for the most effective role he can play as he exits the nation's political stage.
While Reagan relaxes at his ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains near here, his aides have been looking ahead to the approaching battles in Washington and planning the White House agenda.
To a large extent, senior White House officials say that they see the next 45 to 60 days as central to the President's final months in office.
They envision a particularly busy September: The President will meet with Pope John Paul II on Thursday in Miami, when the pontiff begins a North American tour, will attend ceremonies in Philadelphia a week later marking the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution and address the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21.
And, with such important issues as arms control and support for Nicaragua's rebels, the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court and 1988 budget issues coming to a head, one senior official said:
"Let's be brutally blunt. We'll know by mid-September how you play out" the remainder of the term.
"I think you've got a good sense in the White House of wanting 1988 to be a big year, but it's still a moving target," he said.
And, although no date has been set--at least publicly--for a meeting between the President and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, such a summit seems likely if current progress in medium-range arms negotiations continues. A summit meeting in the United States could be followed by a Reagan visit to the Soviet Union.
And, reflecting the degree of preparation that is going on at the White House, initial work has already been started on the State of the Union speech, with which the President will kick off the new year next January, the official said.
Reagan has said that, in his final months in office, he will not be a "potted plant" President presiding over an Oval Office sprouting cobwebs. And, he has added, after leaving the White House at age 78 he will be found on the "rubber chicken" dinner circuit making the sort of political speeches he has been delivering for more than two decades.
But the picture for 1988, when the campaign to succeed him heats up, is less than certain and has been a topic for speculation and meetings among the President's aides and Republican advisers.
And, whatever service Reagan can provide to the Republican Party, his first goal--and one that is crucial to his value as a GOP campaigner next year--is to recover as much of his popular standing as possible nearly a year after the Iran- contra scandal began to unfold.
In the words of a senior aide, "one of the key strategic goals is to try to recover the President's popularity rating. A popular Ronald Reagan is obviously an asset to the Republicans in '88."
The President's aides see at least three roles for him in the 1988 campaign:
--Raising money for state Republican parties and congressional campaigns.
--Setting the framework for the public debate over some of the major topics likely to be raised in the presidential campaign by arguing publicly and in no uncertain terms for his positions on such issues as Central America, arms control and the budget.
--Taking an active part in the most visible arena, the race between Democratic and Republican nominees next autumn, by campaigning for the GOP's presidential ticket, once a candidate is chosen.
Window of Opportunity
"You're looking at windows of opportunity. This year is part of that window to help form the outlines of the debate," said a senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity. As the general election approaches, he said, "you move more into an active role of supporting the candidate, rather than moving the public debate."
At the moment, however, White House officials are trying to determine "the cogent issues with the public," one said.
"Right now, there's an issue diffusion. There isn't a single most salient problem," he said. "Drugs, AIDS, why do you think we're on to those things? AIDS is something people are concerned about.
"You have to make some pretty strategic decisions about what are the hot buttons" that will catch the attention of the American voters, and then build the President's schedule to focus on these issues, he said.
One other area, much less dramatic than the presidential campaign, is being given some consideration: the once-a-decade congressional redistricting that will be carried out after the 1990 census--a remapping of each state's congressional district boundaries that can be a major factor in determining a party's fortunes in congressional elections through the rest of this century.
According to one Reagan aide, the President, aware of the central role that the state legislatures play in determining the district boundaries, may focus on what he sees as the need to elect Republicans to these chambers.