THERE comes a time, in some of those world boxing matches, when the two weary gladiators cling to each other for support even as they figure out how to pursue the contest. Next month's summit between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev has something of those overtones. Both leaders have suffered some politically wearying setbacks; both now seem to need the support of each other in orchestrating the summit to recoup some of their strengths.
Mr. Reagan emerged from the battering of the Iran-contra affair only to find himself on the losing end of a Supreme Court nomination, and a stock market decline that shook the world's economy. Now he is challenged to get a new Supreme Court judge appointed, and to bring decisive leadership to the task of slashing the budget deficit. He is under fire from right-wingers who want him to pursue traditionally conservative solutions, and from liberals who want him to unscramble the policies upon which he has based his administration.
Mr. Gorbachev, meanwhile, seems to be having as difficult a time with his domestic constituency. He has embarked on a program of shake-up and reform, in a bid to galvanize the turgid Soviet economy. But some of Gorbachev's right-wingers seem to be worried that reform is moving too fast. Meanwhile, there have been extraordinary glimpses of criticism from Gorbachev's would-be reformers, who argue that reform is not going forward vigorously enough.
The hitch in Soviet planning for the summit may well have been caused by this domestic turmoil. During a visit to Moscow by US Secretary of State George Shultz, at which the announcement of a summit date had been virtually assured, Gorbachev pulled back and sent ripples of doubt and concern around the world. Then, within days, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was sent scuttling off to Washington to repair the damage and get the summit back on track. There is speculation that critics within his own regime caused Gorbachev to slow down on summit plans; when confronted by adverse world publicity, plus a refusal by President Reagan to make further concessions, they reversed themselves and got the summit scheduled for early December.
The cast of Gorbachev's major speech in Moscow this week also lends credence to the theory that he is treading a delicate path between restless factions. Many saw his speech as a bow to the conservatives.
For instance, there was a rather cautious view of Soviet history. Gorbachev criticized Stalin for ``unforgivable crimes,'' but he did not go much further than Nikita Khrushchev 30 years ago, and there certainly was not the frank expos'e of excesses under Soviet communism for which many had hoped.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev rebuked Boris Yeltsin, the Moscow party chief, who ironically has been one of Gorbachev's supporters, but who recently has argued that reforms are proceeding too slowly and ponderously. Gorbachev's disavowal of his own man is also seen as an indication that Gorbachev has had to placate critics on the right.
There have been some sidelights to all this that indicate the Soviet Union is still very much a controlled society despite the promises of glasnost. For instance, the Soviet news agency Tass first reported that Mr. Yeltsin had threatened to resign. This was swiftly followed, however, by a peremptory directive to newspaper editors not to publish the story. Clearly, in certain sensitive areas affecting party authority, press freedom has not come to the USSR.
Amid all this turmoil, Gorbachev must be as eager as Reagan for a diversionary summit that will stress progress and achievement on the international front.