Whichever American pundit first dubbed the 1972 Republican Party convention the "coronation" of Richard Nixon should get a peek at the show Moscow is readying for the septuagenarian son of a Russian steelworker.
The show is billed officially as the congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- a rite held every five years theoretically to chart major policy directions for the USSR.
The steelworker's son is, by official accounts, part philosopher, part poet, part war hero, populist, and international statesman. He is Soviet President and Communist Party chief Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. And despite prickly policy problems at home and abroad, he seems more firmly in the Kremlin saddle than ever.
With the Kremlinologist's traditional caveat -- "There's no way of knowing for sure what the Soviets will do until they do it" -- most foreign analysts here expect the coming 26th congress to figure less in divulging major new departures in Kremlin policy, than in celebrating the 16-year tenure of Leonid Brezhnev.
Some Kremlin-watchers caution that Mr. Brezhnev's ever-embellished public image could conceivably presage his retirement to a more ceremonial role, with others assuming increasing policy responsibilities.
Moreover, politics is a rough business here. Brezhnev policy dividends, of late, look far better in the pages of Pravda than on the ground. Poland, the chronically stumbling Soviet economy, and, to a lesser extent in Soviet eyes, Afghanistan, all present major problems for the Kremlin.
The possibility cannot be altogether excluded that some person or persons near the pinnacle of this closed society may be fixing to use these apparent setbacks to draw the curtain on the Brezhnev era.
But these are distinctly minority views. Mr. Brezhnev, one of the troika that took over for an ousted Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, has gone to some lengths to avoid following in his footsteps.
"This," said one veteran Western diplomat reflecting the clear majority prediction, "will be Leonid Brezhnev's congress, a celebration of the man."
Most analysts add this corollary: Since party congresses historically have received, not made, major decisions, any policy shifts that emerge from this one will be sufficiently subtle to protect the main priorities personally associated with Mr. Brezhnev.
Among the most important of these are a brand of international detente, assuming expanded Soviet military might; a brand of economic revitalization, assuming an often stultifying emphasis on centralization; and, with relevance to the unrest in Poland, a brand of socialist fraternity, assuming the right to strong counteraction if a member of the club seems in danger of splitting off.
Not since the days of Joseph Stalin has something so nearly qualifying as a personality cult been fashioned around a Soviet leader. The edifice, most analysts here maintain, could hardly have been more perfectly built than if specifically timed for the coming congress.
The process began in the early 1970s, when party leader Brezhnev had already emerged as the clear central force in Soviet policy. Since then, colleagues potentially diluting Mr. Brezhnev's power have been gradually eased out of their positions.
Among the losers were the two men who formally shared leadership with Mr. Brezhnev after Mr. Khrushchev's ouster. President Nikolai Podgorny was removed in 1977, allowing Mr. Brezhnev to assume his title as well. Premier Alexei Kosygin retired late last year, replaced by Brezhnev protege Nikolai Tikhonov.
The replacement of Mr. Kosygin, who passed on in December, ushered in personnel changes within Soviet ministries, seen here as inserting Brezhnev favorites and, in effect, crowning his consolidation of power.
A Brezhnev preference for rule by consensus over rule by raw muscle appears to have survived that carefully charted campaign. Indeed, many analysts expect a further example of this approach at the party congress -- an increase in the membership of the party Central Committee, permitting Mr. Brezhnev to promote loyalists without unnecessarily ousting incumbents.
Mr. Brezhnev has meanwhile benefited from promotion of a more extravagant nature. He has now won virtually every important official award. Soviet histories portray a once little-known World War II battle in which Mr. Brezhnev took part, as a major turning point in the war.
In recent week Soviet television has shown a film version of Mr. Brezhnev's memoirs. The print version won the nation's top literary prize in 1979. A review of the TV presentation in the government newspaper Izvestia Feb. 5 spoke, typically, of the "image of the author . . . of a communist of the Lenin school, who has risen from a simple worker to the outstanding political figure and statesman he now is. It is the image of a person of gre at soul."