What's behind Reagan recovery in the polls

President Reagan is on the rebound. Despite high unemployment, looming budget concessions in Congress, the lingering taint of the Environmental Protection Agency troubles, and unease at home and abroad over administration arms control moves, Mr. Reagan appears to be gaining a second leadership wind.

The signs of renewed Reagan momentum are apparent enough this spring. Partly, it's seen in public opinion polls showing a rise of several points in the President's approval rating. There is a feeling within the White House that Reagan's leadership style has enabled him to outlast bad news and criticism.

Seen helping Reagan:

* The first clear signs of recovery are restoring confidence that Reagan's policies will eventually help, not hurt, the economy.

* While domestic issues - led by unemployment, social security - favor the Democratic Party, GOP strategists argue that Democratic presidential contenders have so far made lackluster debuts.

* Recent White House initiatives have made nuclear arms control a potent political issue. With a series of press interviews, public statements, and speeches - such as today's Los Angeles address on his interim proposal for missile deployment in Europe - Reagan has effectively held center stage.

The administration is putting out the word that the Soviets - and the Democrats - with 1984's US elections in prospect, may be setting the stage for postponing an arms agreement to 1985 or beyond.

Such a charge, like the Reagan camp's ''October surprise'' warning that Carter might seek a hostage pact with the Iranians on the eve of the 1980 election, does several things. It prepares the public for possible disappointment. It makes it more awkward for Democrats to criticize Reagan's arms control leadership. More generally, it sets an aggressive tone that fits in well with the prospect of another Reagan campaign for the White House.

''The best way to run for President is to be President,'' says Stuart Spencer , Reagan political consultant expected to again play a lead role in any future Reagan reelection effort.

''Reagan doesn't have to decide whether he will run again until September,'' Mr. Spencer says, assuming Reagan will eventually decide to seek a second term. A Reagan ''no'' to a second term should come earlier, some Republican strategists say, to enable alternative candidates to launch campaigns.

The Spencer view of Reagan's political future lays heavy emphasis on the President's style. For example, a Reagan race in 1984 would again center on presidential debates.

''He's weathered some tough attacks, verbal abuse from Tip O'Neill and the Democrats, extremely well,'' says Richard Wirthlin, Reagan's pollster.

''This is partly due to widespread recognition we are coming out of the recession,'' Mr. Wirthlin says. ''People are much more optimistic about the economy than they were 30 days ago. There's been a 10 percent increase the past month in the public's sense that Reagan's policies will help, not hurt the economy.''

Reagan's style has served as a political safety net.

''Reagan's trusted,'' Wirthlin says. ''He's liked personally. Despite high unemployment, we're beginning to see the political payoff that comes to a President whose policies aren't liked, or even appreciated, but who gains from the public feeling that he can be trusted, he's strong. When things start to go for him, that's when you see an incumbent picking up strength.''

It's too early to tell what effect Reagan's latest round of arms pronouncements will have on him politically, Wirthlin says. Other presidents, however, often benefited sharply in public approval after major arms or foreign policy speeches. Such gains often proved shortlived, however.

Negotiations on arms carries potential risks for Reagan. The more he identifies himself as chief negotiator, the more he commits himself to seeking a second term, aides say. He must guard against being held personally responsible for failure to reach an agreement with the Soviets. And he must navigate through potential public disruptions in Europe when deployment of US intermediate range missiles begins there later this year.

For the moment, however, Reagan has gained at least a reprieve, as he weekends in California for the Easter holiday.

He can be fairly pleased with his party's standing at his home base, at least for a presidential race in 1984.

He leads the Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale by 47 percent to 42 percent in the latest California Poll 1984 presidential match-ups. Reagan trails Glenn by 2 points, leads Cranston by one.

The fascinating part of the California Poll's findings was that the leading GOP alternates to Reagan - George Bush, Howard Baker - do as well as the incumbent against the Democrats. Of the nine different pairings of the three leading prospects on each side, six are decided by one or two points, and the biggest margin is just five points.

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