President Reagan is now described as being ''favorably disposed'' toward a summit meeting with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Those closely associated with Mr. Reagan say the summit is likely to occur before the end of the President's current term.
One administration scenario has the President meeting with the Soviet leader early next year, well before the heavy travel demands of the 1984 campaign are upon him.
Another scenario plunges Mr. Reagan into this venture in global diplomacy in the midst of the campaign - if presidential strategists see the summit as not damaging but possibly helping the President's reelection bid.
But is Mr. Andropov interested? The assessment within the White House is that he is ready and eager to talk to the President. Administration informants say the ''signals'' from Andropov indicate that he desires a summit.
No one should rush to the conclusion, however, that this get-together of the leaders of East and West would be billed as an arms control or arms reduction summit. Instead, as envisioned by the Reagan camp, the one-on-one conference would likely deal with economic issues, especially East-West trade.
The two leaders would, of course, be expected to discuss arms control. But that would not be the stated objective of the meeting. Thus, the agenda would be set up in a way that would keep the watching world from building up expectations of progress on arms control.
As perceived by White House planners, however, a climate of low expectation might be just right for achieving substantial progress on halting the arms race.
The President has always taken the position that he would not meet with the Soviets unless he was certain that something positive would come out of it. By this he means that he would want something already in place - something that could be announced in terms of positive results after the summit - before he sat down with his opposite number on the Soviet side.
Reagan still takes that position. He is understood to be willing to sit down now with Andropov if something new in the way of economic understandings, trade agreements, or cultural exchanges could be agreed to in advance.
Further, the administration's perception is that Andropov would agree to a summit meeting that headlined objectives other than arms control.
Asked whether a Reagan-Andropov summit was likely, a foreign policy expert on the Democratic side, Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington, said he thought it was and that ''it is important that the leaders do meet.''
''I've always said that there should be prior, full understanding of the agenda by the parties,'' he added. ''But I'm more and more inclined to say that even if the objectives are limited, a summit would be very useful.''
Obviously, the summit would offer an opportunity for these leaders to size each other up and get to know each other. When President Ford met the late Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev at Vladivostok in November 1974, the outcome was an agreement that helped pave the way for the SALT II negotiations.
But it was also apparent to those watching the two men that there was evidence of mutual respect and even friendliness emerging.
For leaders who could so easily touch off a nuclear war, the opportunity to get to know each other may in itself be a significant reason to hold a summit.
Reagan really never wanted to meet with Brezhnev, although he talked tentatively of such a get-together. He is said to have felt at the time that Brezhnev would remain in power only a short time longer, hence the moment wasn't right for the US to invest time in summit diplomacy.
But now Reagan sees the Andropov regime as settling in - and certainly permanent enough for a sit-down session, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in the United States, perhaps in another country.
The United States is understood to be quite flexible about where the summit would be held.