President Reagan is fighting back and his new strategy for putting over his economic package is taking form. According to one White House aide, "It's a national plan." But the first move in implementing it will be an effort during the Easter recess in Congress to win over conservative Democrats in the South.
Several high-powered surrogates -- including Vice-President Bush, former President Gerald Ford, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, and Rep. Jack F. Kemp (R) of New York -- will be making on-the-scene pitches to Southern voters.
Their message: Tell your Democratic congressmen and senators to support the President. After all, Mr. Reagan's economic proposals are shaped to respond to your desires for reducing federal spending.
Following the concentration of the administration's persuasive effort in the South, these and other surrogates will visit other areas in an effort to rally support.
There also will be an implicit message to members of Congress who are up for reelection in 1982: The voters may turn against you if you turn against this popular president and the program he is trying to put in place.
The strategy has been put together largely as a reaction to recent setbacks in both the Senate and House.
However, there is said to be no gloom or desperation involved in shaping this counterattack. Said one Reagan associate: "We are about where we expected to be at this time with this program. We knew it would be tough to put this program through Congress. So we expected some problems. But they have been relatively mild -- and we are convinced we can cope with them."
More than anything else, the Reagan camp is buoyed by the particularly high popularity rating the President has been enjoying since the assassination attempt.
Reaganites concede there may be no connection between the President's current popularity and the way Congress is likely to vote on his economic package.
"But put it this way," an aide says. "Having this high rating in the pools certainly isn't hurting us. . . ."
Several Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, concede that the Democrats in Congress have been weakened in their efforts to combat the President's program by Reagan's sudden rise in public support.
The President is still planning a nationwide address. An earlier plan for a speech on radio was delayed, perhaps scrubbed, as aides argued for him to go on television at the most propitious moment.
Reagan strategists agree that their best salesman is the President himself. Yet they also believe that he is going to be most effective if he goes before the American people only on rather rare occasions.
The President now is slated to make one of those infrequent TV speeches right after Congress returns. He would have gone on TV earlier had his advisers felt he had regained enough weight to look his best.