1984 political year takes shape

By , Mr. Sperling is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist

The 1984 political year: What does it portend? * The President will be conducting a White House campaign, one in which only on occasion, and only for a few days, strays away from the Rose Garden, where he will make frequent pronouncements.

This will be in the tradition of Richard Nixon. It worked extremely well for him in 1972. It frustrates the opposition. People like to feel their President is minding the store. Ford followed this pattern, too.

* White House chief of staff James Baker says that the President ''very definitely'' will debate his Democratic opponent. Baker should know. It was his advice Reagan took when he finally decided to debate Carter.

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''But wouldn't this be a mistake, perhaps a fatal one, for an incumbent President to debate?'' Baker was asked. ''Might not Reagan get badly hurt in such a debate, much as Carter was politically damaged in 1980?''

''No,'' Baker answered. ''Reagan is particularly good in that kind of a format. It's to his advantage to do so. He'll debate.''

* The Republicans are preparing for what their leaders believe will be ''a very close race'' next fall. They believe that ''events, not issues,'' could possibly beat Reagan. ''Should unemployment and interest rates shoot up again,'' one GOP strategist says, ''that could beat us.''

Republican strategists are concerned about Reagan's involvement in foreign affairs. ''But if this Lebanon thing turns sour on us,'' says a Reagan associate , ''it could be as bad on Reagan as the hostages were on Carter.'' He acknowledges, too, that Latin America ''is a potential danger spot for Reagan.'' But he says, ''We don't see anything really harmful happening to us in that part of the world between now and the election.''

* Should events turn against Reagan by convention time and the future look grim for the President's prospects, then the ''impossible'' might occur. That's the moment when Mr. Reagan might be talked into replacing his good friend George Bush with a woman, perhaps Sandra O'Connor or Nancy Kassebaum.

The Reagan people can't account for the gender gap in his political support. It's nothing new. It was there in 1980. Chiefly, more women than men are concerned that Reagan may be leading the country toward war.

* The Democrats continue to be a party in search of an issue, one with which they can win next year. The current Democratic strategy for 1984 is to stress the ''fairness issue,'' to make out the President as a man insensitive to the poor and disadvantaged.

Democrats say this issue was of inestimable help to the gains they made in last year's elections. Now they believe both Ed Meese and the President have added importance to the issue by displaying considerable insensitivity to the hungry: Meese in raising questions about their numbers and Reagan in publicly backing up his White House counselor.

* Walter Mondale could wrap up the nomination by early spring. And almost everyone now thinks Reagan will run again. So the prospect is for ho-hum conventions. Major TV networks say they will not provide gavel-to-gavel coverage. Republicans are trying to make their gathering briefer than usual.

* Is this the year Richard Nixon will return to the national convention - and receive the respect from his party such a move would connote? One GOP leader said, ''Are you kidding?'' Another said: ''I hadn't thought about it. Nixon's looking good on foreign affairs these days. I wouldn't rule it out completely.''

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