Bruce Sutter, the marvelous relief pitcher of the St. Louis Cardinals, reminds me of President Reagan in the last week of the 1982 campaign. A relief pitcher is called upon, usually late in the game, to prevent the other team from scoring. Bruce Sutter does not produce offense, but he is a most valuable defensive resource for his team. And that's what Reagan seems to be right now for Republican candidates; he is able to help preserve a lead, but he cannot, by himself, overcome an opposition lead.

The president's campaign schedule confirms that political reality. To help the respected and embattled House GOP leader, Rep. Bob Michel, the president went to Peoria, into a district where unemployment is above 15 percent. A Nebraska trip was scheduled to help another nervous GOP incumbent, Gov. Charles Thone, who is in big trouble in a state where Jimmy Carter won 26 percent of the popular vote. The White House is giving obvious priority to saving incumbents rather than to raiding opposition territory.

The Republican national advertising campaign urges voters to "stay the course." But unlike two years ago, when nearly every GOP candidate seemed to be running comfortably on the same Reagan/Kemp/Roth economic recovery plan and a bigger defense budget, this year's congressional candidates, in their own campaigns, emphasize their "independence," "responsiveness" and talent for locating missing Social Security checks for constituents who are happy to tell the world about it in the candidate's TV commercials. There is something almost schizophrenic -- or maybe Democratic -- about this year's Republican campaign where the House candidates don't sound anything much like the national party leaders. Only two years ago, the GOP seemed about to become a truly national party with a basic message for the nation and a real chance of displacing the Democrats as the country's majority party. That dream is now deferred.

Only a year ago, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia ran on the express theme that he liked and respected Ronald Reagan more than anyone else in the commonwealth. This year, the GOP Senate candidate's campaign manager says that the Senate candidate's schedule is "booked" from here to Election Day and that another presidential visit is hereby not requested. As the old adage goes -- everything is a poll of sorts in politics. And when they don't want you, it's usually because they don't think you can help 'em.

Republicans this week are more anxious, even nervous. The Democrats report better poll numbers than last month. Presidential loyalists do not want Reagan blamed for any unexpectedly large Republican defeat on Nov. 2. So the Bruce Sutter strategy is pursued. But the Republicans do not have any Keith Hernandez or Darrell Porter suited up, someone to provide the offense. The Republicans now are playing not to lose. That's different from playing to win.