Dallas — Center stage: the crowning of the king. Back stage: the positioning of the princes for the succession battle that lies ahead.
That is the scenario as the buoyant Republican National Convention gets under way today. In the absence of any suspense over the outcome of the convention, the talk in hotels and convention corridors seems to be less about the race of 1984 than about who will inherit the mantle of Ronald Reagan four years hence.
George Bush? Jack Kemp? Howard Baker? Robert Dole?
Reflecting the intense interest in the subject, the Dallas Morning News polled more than 1,000 GOP delegates and found that Vice-President Bush was the choice of 48 percent of them - indicating he has won over many conservative Reagan supporters.
Preoccupation with the party's succession will be submerged, however, in the euphoria of the center-stage event. After hours of reports and speeches and in an atmosphere of showbiz hoopla, President Reagan and Mr. Bush will be nominated by acclamation to be the presidential and vice-presidential candidates for 1984. By week's end, the image that GOP planners expect to project on television screens is a Republican Party exuberantly united under the conservative Reagan banner and energized to work for a resounding victory in November. The tone will be optimistic and forward-looking.
''We're attempting through the convention to refocus on the future,'' says GOP chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. It is not enough to dwell on the administration's record, he adds. The party must show Americans that the nation's best interests lie in a continuation of Reagan's policies - with their focus on economic growth, national strength, and pride and patriotism.
This could be the shortest party convention in history. In 1880, it took 36 ballots to nominate James Garfield. The convention lasted 44 hours over six days. The 1952 get-together lasted 41 hours, and the 1972 convention, which reendorsed Richard Nixon, took 17 hours. This convention - the 33rd - is scheduled to run 12.5 hours.
Short or not, Dallas is ready. Thousands of Dallas residents are seeing to it that the 4,300 delegates and alternates are treated to a steady whirl of entertainment - from Longhorn cattle drives along the Trinity River and a Ronald Reagan film festival to a fashion show and musical extravaganza.
Republicans chose Dallas for a reason. Texas, with its 29 electoral votes, is a key state to win. Democrats are going to fight hard here.
Heat-drenched Dallas is in fact a reminder of how the shift of population to the Sunbelt and changing voting trends have altered presidential races. Texas, California, and Florida together now account for one-third of the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the White House. While the GOP convention is expected to be a model of party unity, a struggle will begin to take place behind the scenes between moderate conservative and ultra-conservative elements of the party as it moves beyond the Reagan presidency.
Support for Reagan is solid. But the ''Class of '88,'' including such figures as Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and conservative activist Lewis Lehrman, will use the convention to advance their interests. They are making themselves easily accessible to print and television reporters. Many will be heard at the podium. They are also being courted by big corporations, which are holding lavish parties for them here.
As these politicians jockey for attention, political analysts wonder how firmly Reagan's brand of conservatism is stamped on the party.
Some say the imprint is permanent. A generation ago, they note, Republicans were sharply divided between moderate and conservative factions, but the split ended in 1964 when Sen. Barry Goldwater captured the party.
This conservative trend was interrupted with the presidency of Richard Nixon, and then by Watergate, but it came to the fore again with Reagan.
''I don't think the Reaganization of the party is a temporary thing,'' says American historian James MacGregor Burns. ''The party has been transformed. With the ideological power of the Goldwater movement, and especially with the burgeoning of the Sunbelt, conservatism has come to dominate the party.''
Rep. Richard Cheney (R) of Wyoming, a staunch conservative, says he thinks the Reagan thrust can be sustained. ''I don't see divisions in the party, but divergent points of view,'' he says. ''If Reagan has a big victory and a renewal of a mandate, he will intensify his hold on the party.''
GOP moderates, for their part, last week failed to influence the party platform. Whether they can take their battle over such issues as women's rights and prayer in the schools to the convention floor remains highly doubtful. Some moderate Republicans, in fact, say they hope no floor fight develops.
''My concern is that this might create the impression that the moderates are weaker than (they) are,'' says Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas.
Other political observers say the potential for a return to more moderate Republicanism remains. ''Reagan has not permanently affected the party,'' says political analyst Richard Scammon. ''Taken collectively, conventions are the least representative organs. They are not the rank and file but the activists, those who are dedicated. So if you look at Congress, which is an elected body, Reagan has not put his stamp on it.''
''There is a kind of tidal effect, and at some point it will reverse,'' comments Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, who is on the liberal side of the Republican spectrum. ''Future alignment will depend on the election. If there is sustained prosperity and low unemployment, this will have the effect of perpetuating the ideas of the right wing.''
''On the other hand, if the economic results are more mixed, you have to take a broader view. There are different points of view in the party waiting to be expressed,'' he says.