Ronald Reagan hopes to win the White House this November by making President Carter the principal issue in the traditional Democratic strongholds of the Northeast and the industrial Midwest.
"The failed presidency and President Carter's lack of leadership will be major themes of this campaign," said Reagan chief of staff Ed Meese in an interview today in the 69th-floor suite that was the Reagan command post during the Republican National Convention.
But Reagan's ad campaign will start on a positive note, said Peter Dailey, the deputy chairman in charge of an advertising budget expected to absorb about half the $29.4 million of federal funds Reagan will receive.
"We need to tell people more about Reagan," Dailey said. "We want to emphasize that he spent eight years as governor of a nation-state . . . and that he provided it with effective, practical leadership."
The tactic is designed in part to sharpen the contrast with Carter and in part to blunt what the Reagan managers expect to be a full-scale effort by the president's campaign "to push Reagan off to an extreme position" by dwelling on provocative statements he made in his early years as a Republican speechmaker.
In terms of electoral college mathematics, Meese said, "We're going to have a national campaign. We will preserve our natural base in the West, emphasize key states in the Northeast and Midwest and make forays into the South."
Even though the surveys by Reagan pollster-strategist Richard B. Wirthlin show independent candidate John B. Anderson hurting Carter far more than he does Reagan, the GOP strategists recognize that this may not be true by election day in November.
"The Anderson thing is still a wild card which depends on who he puts on the ticket with him and whether he can raise money," Meese said. "Anderson's success against Carter is not part of our strategy. We must deal with where he can hurt us and treat any help he gives us as gravy."
Heavy emphasis will be given to six states with 151 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. They are New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, all but two of which were carried by Carter in 1976.
Other target states will be New Jersey in the East and Florida and Texas in what Reagan aides call "the Outer South." These three states have 60 electoral votes.
Reagan will devote heavy campaign resources to his populous home state of California, because its 45 electoral votes are too many to take for granted, even though he holds a big lead over Carter in every California poll.
The assumption in the Reagan camp is that Carter will find it difficult to be competitive in eight Rocky Mountain and southwestern states he lost to Gerald R. Ford four years ago. Combining these with Alaska would give Reagan 38 electoral votes from states where a minimum campaign is believed sufficient.
Five Great Plains states (with 27 electoral votes) that Ford also carried -- North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma -- are considered leaning toward Reagan, his advisers believe.
In the South, the Reagan campaign believes it can carry Virginia's 12 electoral votes. Virginia was the one southern state Ford won in 1976. Early polls this year put Reagan ahead in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Carter is given the edge in the Carolinas, Kentucky, Arkansas and Missouri, with a total of 48 electoral votes. Nonetheless, Reagan will wage a serious campaign in these states.
Reagan is perceived by his aides to have the edge in Washington and Oregon, with 15 electoral votes, but these states could be the most competitive in the West for Carter. And the Reagan strategists also think their candidate starts with a lead in Indiana and Iowa, both of which went for Ford, with 21 electoral votes.
For the record, as in every presidential campaign, no state is being written off publicly. However, Carter is unofficially conceded Georgia, Alabama and probably Tennessee in the South. Massachusetts in the Northeast, Minnesota in the Midwest and Hawaii in the West -- six states with 59 electoral votes.
New Hampshire and Vermont are rated as leaning toward Reagan. West Virginia and Rhode Island are seen as leaning strongly toward Carter. Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and Maine are rated as tossups, with Bush helpful to Reagan in all of these states.
New York, with 41 electoral votes, is a particularly tempting prize for Reagan. His planners believe Anderson will be on the ballot there -- either as the choice of the Liberal Party or, more probably, through a petition drive as an independent.
Anderson's appeal to Jewish voters, as reflected in current polls, is a potentially serious problem for Carter, since Reagan has demonstrated exceptional support among Italian and Irish Catholics, other key elements of the Democratic coalition.
Richard Rosenbaum, New York Republican national committeeman, said today that if the Anderson candidacy fades, Jewish doubts about the constancy of Carter's Middle East policy are so great that "Reagan could get 40 percent of the Jewish vote -- as much as [Richard M.] Nixon did in 1972," the last time a Republican carried New York.
While the addition of Bush to the GOP ticket generally strengthened Reagan's chances in the Northeast, Rosenbaum said the selection of someone with a clearer pro-Israel stand would have helped Reagan more in New York.
But Wirthlin's polls show Bush running strong among voters who say they prefer Anderson. This is especially true in Texas, a key battleground, where Bush's strength in the prosperous Houston suburbs is being counted on to offset a major Democratic voter registration drive among the state's Hispanics and blacks.
The first stop Saturday in the GOP campaign is in Houston, where Bush swamped Reagan in the May 3 primary.
Another key battleground is Florida, where a Democratic poll shows Carter 4 percentage points ahead of Reagan at a time Reagan is riding high. Unofficially, the Reagan campaign is pessimistic about Florida, which also has a significant number of Jewish voters but does not have Anderson on the ballot.
In other battleground states, Carter is given an initial edge in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Reagan the edge in Illinois and New Jersey. Traditionally Democratic Michigan, with its high unemployment rate, and Wisconsin are rated tossups.
Reagan will campaign selectively until Labor Day. He is to speak to the Urban League in New York on Aug. 5, and probably will address conventions of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW endorsed him this week.