Washington — There is growing certainty in the White House and among his political cadres that President Reagan will run for a second term. True to form, Mr. Reagan is biding his time on a decision to run for reelection.
But the signs, say those who have worked with him closely for years and are observing his reactions in the current decision process, are that he'll run again.
Whether Reagan runs is not simply a matter of political speculation. How the Soviets regard his arms proposals, how Congress reacts to his legislative initiatives, and whether would-be GOP presidential contenders should move more boldly into the campaign arena - all these are influenced by the likelihood of a second term for Reagan.
Some of signs of the President's intentions include recent White House meetings with groups of Reagan loyalists from around the country who participated in previous campaigns. More of these meetings are scheduled. Also, Democrats and Republicans say the tone and pace of Reagan's recent talks on arms control sound like rehearsals for a presidential campaign.
At the moment, Reagan seems to have found his stride. He seems to be relishing his role as chief spokesman and chief negotiator with Congress and the Soviets. The office does not appear to be burdening him, aides say. And the White House is operating under the assumption it must shift shortly into a reelection mode.
''He'd like to go back to the ranch,'' says one Reagan intimate. ''But he'd go crazy. Nancy would go crazy. Nancy's view, too, would be 'let's go' '' for another campaign.
However, either a yes or no from Reagan will pose problems for the GOP. ''I hope to heaven he runs,'' says one longtime Reagan campaigner and GOP strategist with clients in the conservative and moderate camps. ''The blood bath on the Republican side if he doesn't run would be enormous. Ronald Reagan is the only one who can bring unity, if he's at the head of the ticket.''
Even if Reagan runs, the '84 campaign could prove more difficult for the GOP than was 1980. Reagan supporters list the challenges:
* Structuring the campaign could prove frustrating, as leaders of three clear-cut power bases - the White House staff, the campaign staff, and the Republican National Committee - could claim direct access to Reagan. Already strains are showing again among members of the White House staff as the prospect of reelection nears.
* Many working-class voters have returned to their Democratic moorings. The President continues to receive mixed reviews on the economy, still the primary political issue.
''He has failed to project a program, an attitude, a point of view that is sympathetic to the working-class voters who came over to Reagan in 1980,'' says a Reagan adviser. ''The question is, can we regenerate some of that support that was there in 1980, through most of 1981, and then began to erode?''
* Reagan will be hard pressed to hold the offensive in a campaign. ''This time we can't campaign against Washington, against government,'' a GOP strategist says. ''We are Washington. We are government.''
''As of today, Ronald Reagan has not told anyone, 'I'm running,' '' says a longtime Reagan campaigner. ''That's his nature. In 1975, it was right up to the last moment before he made the call. That was a tougher situation because of Jerry Ford in the White House. When Nixon resigned, there was a lot of uncertainty. Had Jerry Ford handled Ronald Reagan right, (Reagan) wouldn't have run.''
Former Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and California campaign consultant Stu Spencer are considered the leading choices to run an '84 Reagan effort. Mr. Spencer has the experience and savvy, they say. Mr. Lewis, rated an outstanding administrator, however, just took over a cable television project he cannot quickly shed.
Some Reagan supporters expect early fumbling with a campaign operation, the White House staff running things at first. Then by primary time in early '84, a Drew Lewis type would be brought in for the full-fledged campaign drive.
The current White House staff flare-ups have less to do with personalities than with the need to serve two fundamentally different sides of the President, say aides. On the one side, chief of staff James A. Baker III and deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver serve Reagan's inclination to go public with information that can limit damage to his position. National Security Council director William P. Clark and counselor Edwin Meese reinforce Reagan's liking to hold things close to his vest until ready to go public.
The staff harmony issue will likely get more pronounced under the pressure of a campaign, some observers fear.
''There is renewed tension at the White House,'' one Reaganite says. ''Clark is becoming increasingly frustrated. I don't think he'll go to Reagan and say, 'Choose between them and me.' Nobody wins a standoff. Clark won't be there six months from now - of his own choosing. I don't think Bill Clark has the Potomac fever. He doesn't have to stay here. Jim Baker does. There's nothing back in Texas for Jim Baker right now.''
But reports of Reagan team departures have proved remarkably premature in the past. Indeed, some White House analysts have argued that the failure to reinvigorate the administration with new faces this January was a sign Reagan would not run again.
What the staff unrest discussion says most is that key players increasingly think there will be another Reagan campaign. The agitation will mount until there's a clear direction for the pent-up political energies to take.