Montgomery, Ala. — Ronald Reagan, in keeping with his Secret Service code name "Rawhide," is drawing the campaign wagons around his conservative following to stave off the challenge of George Bush for the Republican presidential nomination.
The Reagan camp concedes Mr. Bush is the New England front-runner, which likely means increased Bush momentum through the Feb. 26 New Hampshire and March 4 Massachusetts primaries. At that point, 15 percent of the delegates to the Republican National Convention will have been chosen.
But before the following week is out, Reagan people still feel, they will have won at least three of the four early Southern tests. They talk of taking South Carolina March 8, and then on March 11 winning Georgia and probably Florida, while possibly losing Alabama to Mr. Bush.
At that stage, one-fourth of the convention delegates will have been selected.
If Mr. Bush does well in Florida, Reagan people see a trade-off of wins the rest of the way to the convention. They are counting on the last day's cash-in of 20 percent of the delegates -- weighted heavily in the west, with nearly half from California alone, where Mr. Reagan is strong -- to reward their staying the distance. With nearly $3 million to come in federal matching funds, they say, they do not fear a dry-up of donations after a poor New England start.
Mr. Bush's surge in the polls is misleading, Reagan people say. They see Bush poll strength as "soft" while their candidate's is "hard." Mr. Bush's sudden popularity is based on his image as a comer, they say, rather than on long public familiarity with his positions and character -- as is the case with Mr. Reagan.
Nationally, among Republican voters Mr. Reagan still leads Mr. Bush 47 to 23 percent in the latest Gallup Poll, taken Feb. 1-3. With former president Gerald Ford counted as a candidate, Mr. Reagan still leads Mr. Bush by a 2-to-1 margin, or 34 percent to 17 percent, with Mr. Ford at 31 percent.
Here in the South, in visits to South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama last week, the former California governor took care to say this was not a "new" Reagan they were seeing.
Since his narrow Iowa caucus loss to Mr. Bush, Mr. Reagan talks a little more hawkishly. He tries to match his own contacts with leaders abroad as a Nixon emissary with Mr. Bush's foreign affairs credentials; he proposes "moral and military rearmament," and attacks President Carter's handling of the hostages situation in Iran as "weakness bordering on appeasement."
But in tone and thrust, to longtime Reagan-watchers this is vintage Reagan, familiar in philosophy and phrasing from his 1976 and earlier campaigns. The strategy is to forget any "moderate ambitions" that only a front-runner holds, and to keep his conservative base -- the people who have backed him all along -- and count on them to carry him to the convention.
This is not unlike Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's resort since Iowa to his own "natural" liberal constituency, Reagan people suggest, although they say Mr. Reagan's mistake was to campaign too little rather than to have veered from his constituency.
The risk for Mr. Reagan, his supporters concede, is that, compared with Mr. Bush's hungry-comer image, in a political world where momentum counts heavily, the Reagan stand-pat stance might look like slippage.
Still, "consistency in conservatism" will remain the Reagan theme.
Talk about a "moderate" Reagan or a pitch for "new people" to support him was based on "misperceptions about him and his conservative positions," says Reagan spokesman James Lake.
"Even before Iowa, he was talking about the fundamental conservative principles he wants to have embodied in national policies," Mr. Lake says.
The Reagan hard-line position on foreign affairs likewise is not new, he says. "The focus of attention is on foreign events -- Cuba, Iran, Afghanistan. [Mr. Reagan] feels the [Carter] administration is duplicitous, deceitful, and more interested in re-election than solutions."
In terms of momentum, Mr. Bush now is the front-runner, Mr. Lake says. "But it would be a mistake to start counting [Mr. Reagan] out. He's really a fighter. In '76 he lost the first five primaries and came back to almost beat Ford. He's going to be tested. He was tested in '76 against greater odds and measured up.
"It's tough to be as consistent as he's been over the years. His fundamental principles have remained the same."
Still, the political analysts say, Mr. Reagan cannot count on a rerun of the 1976 campaign to yield anything but a similar negative 1980 result.
"To date, there's been no gaining of ground for Reagan -- which he's got to do to win," says James Shriver, a Gallup organization pollster.