Washington — The basic political strategy of both parties in the already nearing presidential election is now emerging. Republicans, as one top party activist puts it, are pursuing a ''watchful waiting'' approach to the campaign.
The party's superchief, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, calls it noninvolvement.
Over breakfast the other morning, the general chairman of the Republican National Committee stressed the importance of keeping the GOP presidential candidate out of the race for as long as possible. This delay, he said, would let the many Democratic candidates ''cut each other up'' and hurt their party's image and prospects. Mr. Laxalt, who should know, says the President will not be announcing his candidacy until late summer or early fall.
Will the President definitely be running? he was asked. Of course, Laxalt said - he wouldn't have taken his job as the top policy person in the party, even above the party chairman, if he hadn't been assured that the President intended to run.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are setting up a policy that some high party functionaries call ''containment.'' It means, as Democratic National Chairman Charles Manatt spelled out to reporters on the morning before the Laxalt appearance, a determined effort to keep harmony by taking steps to prevent squabbles from occurring.
Mr. Manatt is counseling the candidates to try to avoid speaking ill of each other. He is telling them they must scrupulously stay away from attacks on one another that would bring about what Laxalt now predicts: ''blood being spilled'' on the Democratic side. The lead time that the Democrats will have over the Republicans in the campaign is both a distinct advantage and a great risk, in Manatt's view.
Laxalt says the Democratic candidates are already digging hard at each other. Recently, at a breakfast, candidate Ernest F. Hollings commented that he thought candidate Walter F. Mondale's approach to dealing with the Soviets was one of immediately getting together with the Soviet leaders and then announcing a ''surrender.''
Jimmy Carter, not a candidate but definitely a part of the presidential-race picture, as Laxalt sees it, recently jabbed hard at his former vice-president, saying Mr. Mondale's trade policies could lead to a ''trade war.''
Meanwhile, the staffs of the other candidates are showing an eagerness to point out to reporters - guardedly, of course - the alleged failings of competitors.
But Manatt disclosed he was taking other steps to ensure that party harmony prevails as much as possible at the 1984 national convention. He says he is quite aware of the possibility that special-interest groups such as peace activists, homosexuals, and feminists might well make quite a stir (with the attendant television coverage) if their interests aren't addressed at the convention in San Francisco.
Thus, he says, he is going to stage a party get-together next year that is ''more managed'' and less inclined than recent conventions to cater to interest groups.
The platform, as he envisions it, will be a relatively short, simple document that tells the party's general position and avoids specifics that, in the past, detailed the aspirations of a number of special-interest groups.
He is also taking steps to make sure that the elected public officials, who will make up a greater portion of the delegation next year (about one-fourth will be party politicians in 1984 and not elected) will be in charge of the convention committees, and will be in a position to quiet down dissidents and keep them away from the cameras.
Thus, Manatt hopes that these seasoned Democrats will be ready to keep the convention from getting out of control and presenting a picture of confusion and controversy.
In 1980 the main and lasting impression that many viewers got of the Democratic convention was of then-candidate Edward M. Kennedy pretty much snubbing the President on that final night when, traditionally, all candidates come together behind the nominee.
Laxalt says the President's position is secure now and all the way through the convention. In fact, he wants Mr. Reagan and his supporters to remain quiet. He says that those Reaganites who have started to move, even to raise funds in Reagan's behalf, should ''stay cool'' and hold off.
He says he very much wants to give the Democrats a clear field for a while and, as he sees it, the opportunity to stumble.