Washington — Before Air Force One touches down, the stage for the Reagan pep rally is set. Some 7,500 supporters have passed through metal detectors and are neatly assembled on the airport tarmac, holding small American flags and political placards scrawled with ''Ron's Our Man,'' ''Good Job, Mr. President,'' ''Nazarenes for Reagan.''
TV cameras are mounted on an elevated stand and ready to begin rolling. As a brass band finishes a spirited polka, a campaign operative steps up to the microphone and warms up the audience.
''All right, now, let see those flags. What do we want?''
''Four more years!'' the crowd responds.
''Let's hear it again! Get those flags up!''
''Four more years!''
As the President walks up on the podium, whistles and cheers ring out in the clear Iowa air. Behind him stands the presidential aircraft, a gleaming, impressive symbol of the most powerful leader in the Western world.
''Four more years!'' chants the enthusiastic throng.
''Well, if you feel that way,'' says the President with a slight nod of his head, ''it's all right with me.''
Traveling with Mr. Reagan, one comes to appreciate the clockwork, organizational skill, and perfected use of the symbols of incumbency that go into presidential campaigning. More than any other president in modern history, Reagan has turned campaigning into slick, dazzling news-media theater, replete with red-white-and-blue trappings, sympathetic audiences, and masterly performance.
To go back to the Iowa rally:
Looking executive in a dark business suit, his hair ruffled slightly by the wind, Reagan begins by first pausing to pay tribute to those killed in the attack on the US Embassy in Beirut. Then he talks about a greeting received from six-year-old Katy Beckett, for whom he cut ''a little red tape'' in Washington so that she can now live at home and still receive medical help. Finally he gets to the text of his speech, where he lashes out at the Democrats without mentioning them by name and talks about the American dream and making this ''a shining land of opportunity.''
Winding up his appearance, he tells a story about a time in 1948 when he was sent to England to make a movie, and, visiting a pub, he heard a woman recalling how the Yanks came over to fight in the war. ''Big strapping lads they was, from a place called I-O-WAY!'' he says, mimicking her brogue. The crowd cheers.
Then Reagan steps down, enters his black, bulletproof limousine, and, with the approving yells still ringing in his ears, is whisked off to his next campaign event.
Because of the President's commanding lead over Democratic rival Walter Mondale, Reagan's political planners have been sparing him a heavy schedule on the stump. Since Labor Day he has been making only one or two one-day trips into the hinterlands to woo blue-collar workers, farmers, or other specific voting constituencies. But these brief forays are planned with a consummate sense of political timing and organization.
One cardinal rule is not to let the news media or protesters get too close. Television crews and photographers are given access to all events that make for good prime-time extravaganza or newspaper photos - the President talking to a farmer in a soybean field, being lustily cheered by plant workers, or eating a pork-and-beef lunch at an outdoor picnic near a local church. Reporters, on the other hand, are by and large made to keep a distance, lest they fire off questions and elicit from the President some comment that might embarrass him politically or diplomatically. The fact that Reagan has not given a full press conference since July 24 has invited charges from the Democrats that he is aloof and isolated.
But, as Reagan-Bush strategists calculate it, the public sees him as big as life on television and does not think he is aloof at all.
The President's speeches are meticuously tailored for local audiences, but all resonate with optimism, a patriotic spirit, and nostalgia. He takes credit for anything and everything good that has happened during his presidency - an improving economy, a stronger defense, even a rise in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.
''After years of drift and decline, this great nation is moving forward again ,'' he tells Iowans.
''We say America should shoot for the stars, strive for the best, and, like our Olympic athletes, go for it,'' he says later in the day to employees at Westinghouse Furniture Systems in Kentwood, Mich. His voice, after years of experience as a radio announcer, sounds as if he were talking to an individual listener.
He involves the audience, deftly tapping into their emotions and controlling their responses. He charges his political opponent - ''him'' - with calling for tax increases that would add $1,800 to the tax burden of every household. ''Are you prepared to sit back and let them do that to America?'' he asks with a note of incredulity.
''No!'' cry his listeners.
Unfailingly, he mentions some local hero or incident that connects him to his audience and is intended to show his sympathetic concern. In Cedar Rapids he cites the search for two missing boys: ''Nancy and I join all of you in praying for the safe return of Johnny and Eugene....'' At the Westinghouse plant in Michigan he praises Lee Raterink, a local union leader, for his charitable activities and Albrie Love Jr., a black employee, for his efforts on behalf of minorities. ''What you are doing is showing the world what America is all about, '' he says. ''Now the whole country is telling the world, 'You ain't seen nothin' yet.' ''
Applause resounds through the hall.
The President sets his own campaign agenda. It is direct and uncomplicated. While Walter Mondale struggles to engage him in a free-for-all dialogue on the ''issues,'' Reagan preaches his own proven themes, among them the virtues of hard work and family life. He ignores the Democratic challenger. At the same time he steals the Democrats' thunder, never neglecting to invoke the name of Harry Truman or FDR or ''Jack'' Kennedy.
''You might have noticed that our opponents are trying to appeal to traditional Democrats by comparing themselves to Harry Truman,'' Reagan tells a Cedar Rapids rally. ''Well, President Truman kept a sign on his desk that said, 'The buck stops here.' But, if our opponents are elected, their sign will say, 'Your bucks stop here.' ''
Laughter ripples through the throng.
He calls on Democrats to do what he did long ago - leave the Democratic Party. ''Join us,'' he says buoyantly at every event. ''Come walk with us down the new path of hope and opportunity. Together, we can lift America up to meet our greatest days.''
Although almost every campaign remark is programmed in advance, the President deftly seizes opportunities for one-liners. As he is repeating the story about his encounter in an English pub, a train whistle suddenly interrupts him. ''Is that his campaign train?'' he quips.
Some 20,000 people turn out for his rally at Ah-Nab-Awen Bicentennial Park in Grand Rapids. Many come just to see the President. Some are Mondale supporters. A local rock band belts out ''Fritz Mondale, you ain't nothin' but a hound dog.'' Huge banners reading ''Michigan says 'Yes' to Reagan-Bush in '84'' are draped on the nearby bridge spanning the Grand River. As the Oval Office incumbent ascends the podium, the chant begins: ''Four more years! Four more years!''
The President beams and, with that inevitable slight nod of his head, tells the crowd:
''All right, you win. I'll give in.''
It is vintage Reagan.