San Francisco — Democratic plans to retake the White House this year might be termed the strategy of the ''four F's'' - fairness, fear, family, and Ferraro. Each part of the strategy is expected to play a vital part in the coming campaign against President Reagan:
* Fairness, a term heard over and over here at the Democratic convention, encompasses those populist complaints against Mr. Reagan as a man who tilts government in favor of wealthy Americans and big business. The fairness theme was at the heart of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's impassioned speech to the delegates here.
* Fear, it is believed here, will be a major force driving Americans to vote against the President, including fear of nuclear war, fear of budget deficits, fear of a rollback of civil rights, fear of conflict in Central America.
* Family is the Democrats' response to the patriotic symbols and traditional values to which the President frequently alludes. Democrats will speak of the ''American family'' - that is, the nation.
* Ferraro, of course, is Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro, who tonight could become the first woman nominated by a major party for vice-president. Ms. Ferraro, it is hoped, will galvanize another ''F,'' the female vote.
Taken together, Democrats hope the four-F's will have strong and emotional appeal, especially in the Northern industrial states where the party must run well or expect to go down to a crashing defeat in November.
Several times this spring, Walter Mondale began testing various anti-Reagan themes. In every case, however, Mr. Mondale had to cut short his attack on the GOP and turn his fire back toward various Democratic challengers, primarily Sen. Gary Hart, within his own party.
The long and divisive intraparty struggle has shortened Mr. Mondale's time for putting together his campaign team and setting his agenda for the fall. Republican strategists, who rubbed their hands with pleasure over the prolonged Democratic fight, say Mondale's foreshortened schedule is a major disadvantage for the Democrats.
Vic Fingerhut, a Washington-based political consultant, is one of those who have urged Democrats to push hard on the fairness issue.
As Jackson's fiery speech illustrated, the issue of fairness generates tremendous emotion among many voters.
Mr. Fingerhut notes that Democrats, by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, are by far the larger of the two major political parties in the United States. The fairness issue, he contends, should be exploited to the hilt as a means of mobilizing that Democratic advantage. The populist charge that Republicans favor the rich is the surest way to turn out millions of wavering, complacent, or turned-off Democrats, he says.
Democratic strategists, including Ms. Ferraro, say they feel they have also found a sensitive chord among the body politic when they talk about issues that create fear among voters.
There are many fears, they feel, that can be used. Fear of nuclear war. Fear of recession. Fear of a Reagan-appointed Supreme Court. Fear of a loss of civil rights.
One favorite fearsome scenario concerns the court. It is pointed out that as many as five justices, more than half, may be retiring within the next four years. The new Democratic platform warns:
''There can be little doubt that a Supreme Court chosen by Ronald Reagan would radically restrict constitutional rights and drastically reinterpret existing laws.''
The platform, written under Ms. Ferraro's guidance, warns of other dangers it says lie ahead:
Social programs. ''The deficits (Reagan) created will become his excuse for destroying programs he never supported. Medicare, social security, federal pensions, farm price supports, and dozens of other people-oriented programs will be in danger.''
National security. ''In a second Reagan term, will our heavens become a nuclear battleground? ... Can we afford four more years of a Pentagon spending binge?''
Economy. ''A second Reagan term would bring federal budget deficits larger than any in American history. ... Interest rates, already rising sharply, will start to soar.''
Taxes. ''Ronald Reagan's tax 'reforms' were a bonanza for the very wealthy, and a disaster for poor and middle-class Americans. If reelected, Mr. Reagan will have more of the same in store.''
Energy. ''If Mr. Reagan is reelected, will we be able to heat our homes and run our factories? ... By failing to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve ... this administration has wagered our national security on its economic ideology.''
One of the Republicans' strongest appeals, however, is the intangibles: patriotism, religious values, home, family. President Reagan's ability to speak of these important, often stirring subjects with deep feeling has been one of his greatest strengths, in the view of Democratic planners. They feel they cannot afford to abandon this area to the GOP.
Their answer: Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, governor of New York, keynoter at the convention, and champion of the Democratic version of family values.
In his frequent public appearances, Governor Cuomo speaks of America itself as a family. He talks of shared sacrifices, of helping one another, of caring for one another - on a national basis. He says that Americans in New York must care for Americans who need help in Iowa, or California, or Mississippi.
The governor then argues that Republicans fail in this vision of the American family, that the Republican view of family is more narrow, more selfish, more limited. In the Cuomo message, many Democrats say they have found an excellent response to the Republicans.
Finally, there is the Ferraro factor - the women of America.
Senior Democrats feel that Ms. Ferraro will be a tremendous help with many segments of the American electorate.
First of all, she will be a great boost to women Democrats running for congressional seats and other offices across the country.
She is also expected to bring out more women voters and, almost as important, bring out thousands of women volunteers to work for the Democratic ticket.
Ms. Ferraro is also expected to boost the ticket among blue-collar and white-collar ethnics, especially in the nation's industrial belt, where so many immigrants and children of immigrants live and work.
In coming weeks, both Mr. Mondale and Ms. Ferraro will get the opportunity to test these themes as their campaign gathers speed.
They start far, far behind - but others have begun far behind and still won. Democrats are convinced that with the fairness issue, fear of a Reagan second term, emphasis on America as a family, and the Ferraro appeal to women, they just might be able to score an upset.