CAMPAIGNING coast to coast for Republican candidates, President Reagan is trying one more time to get America's attention. It is no easy task. The race for governor between two sharp-tongued rivals in Texas, or between two Greek-Americans in Massachusetts, has little to do with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The economy of Texas, in the Southern belt of states where the Reagan Republicans have hoped to build their future, has lost its energy-industry luster. The economy of Massachusetts, the state that gave Mr. Reagan his lowest electoral margin in 1984 except for Walter Mondale's Minnesota, is booming. So it goes across America -- a variegated maze of candidates, state party traditions, differing economic and social climates.
Next Tuesday's election is not a referendum on the Reagan presidency. It is not a vote for or against his Nicaragua contra war, his reluctance to go along with South Africa sanctions, his tax reform advocacy.
The President very much wants to maintain Republican control of the US Senate. At the least, the GOP margin in the Senate is expected to shrink. In case of a 50-50 tie, Vice-President George Bush could cast a deciding vote. With or without a GOP Senate majority, President Reagan could still count on the conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans, which is a very stable force in American politics. He has the veto, which he is not reluctant to use. Further, Reagan's leadership style was forged back in California, where his aides would quietly work out accommodations with the Democratic majority leadership. In Washington, the early dealmakers were the Democratic Boll Weevils in the House; later, the moderate Republican leadership in the Senate played that roll, with help from top White House aides.
In his remaining two years in office, even under a Democratic Senate majority, the President could count on some cooperation between the Democratic and Republican leadership. Such cooperation was abundant in the case of tax reform. Politicians thrive on getting a piece of the action. Bipartisan bait has worked for the President before and, if he wants it to, can work for him again.
The political risk in a GOP Senate shellacking next Tuesday, after all the presidential campaigning, is that it might be said that the wind has gone out of the sails of the ``Reagan revolution.'' Yet, most of the Reagan program, its themes going back to the 1960s start of his political career, has been tried out in Congress, in the courts, and in domestic and foreign policy executive decisions over the past six years. As political movements go, the Reagan era is mature. Its fate does not hang in the balance of one more election.
Reagan has not been the only GOP phenomenon of the past six years. The Republican Party has shown great energy and professionalism. In laying strategy, raising money, and targeting voters it has made the most of often very narrow prospects. Even Reagan's popularity is being marketed astutely by GOP professionals.
So this election can be said to be at least as much a test of sheer political competitiveness as of the durability and reach of Reagan's coattails, or the effectiveness of his presidency.
Mostly it is a matter of a people choosing, at all levels of government, the women and men who must make government work for them. It is the quality of these people that is really at stake -- and this in itself is no small matter.