Washington — If leadership is the ability to convince people of the rightness of your ideas and policies, the Reagan administration has faced no stiffer leadership test than the one with Congress over AWACS.
It has sent all its forces into the political fray - Cabinet secretaries and other top officials, congressional leaders, corporate allies, and the President himself - to persuade lawmakers that the $8.5 billion weapons package should be sold to Saudi Arabia. Still, the battle on Capitol Hill remains an uphill one for the administration. And, according to professional pollsters, most Americans remain opposed to the sale.
The White House effort has been one of attrition, chipping away at the 50 senators who signed a resolution opposing the sale and coaxing the uncommitted - one at a time - to join in support of the President. It has been successful to a degree, but even some administration supporters acknowledge that it began very late in the day and with initial bumbling.
''I wish we weren't in this whole (AWACS) thing,'' says Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, who succumbed to presidential lobbying. ''It's a very painful situation in which there are no winners.''
In Mr. Pressler's case, the key to changing his mind was White House assurances that the safety and interests of Israel would be protected, assurances that critics say are relatively meaningless and nothing new.
Mr. Reagan has made the argument that a defeat on AWACS ''would be a devastating blow to the President's ability to conduct foreign policy,'' as Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. puts it.
But there also are persistent reports that less lofty tactics have been employed: favored legislation expedited, promises to withhold campaign opposition, appointments held up, military bases closed.
Senator Baker says there have been ''extraordinary'' consultations between White House and Congress on the issue. But Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio said the sale has been ''as poorly handled (by the White House) as anything I've seen in my seven years on Capitol Hill.'' Senator Glenn accuses the administration of ''political bribery'' in its arm-twisting.
Without referring specifically to Israel, the President has said it is ''not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.'' White House supporter Pressler finds ''troubling'' this indirect criticism of the so-called ''Jewish lobby.'' But in a candid comment, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois admitted he had voted against AWACS in the House because he ''didn't want Jewish groups coming down on me.''
The assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat inevitably became a factor in the AWACS debate. Rejection of the deal would ''make a mockery of all President Sadat stood for,'' declared Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.
Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III contended that the assassination was no more an indication of instability in the Mideast than the attempt on Reagan's life indicated the possibility of political upheaval in the United States. Critics pointed out that the US President was not shot by religious fanatics who had infiltrated the military and were plotting a takeover of the country.
But in the end, it has come down to personal calls from the President and invitations to meet in small groups with him at the White House. And those proved highly successful tactics in the ''battle of the budget'' earlier this year.