Advisers to President Reagan and Walter F. Mondale said yesterday that Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko's overtures to the United States on arms control may be aimed at pushing the issue to the forefront of the U.S. election campaign in advance of Sunday's presidential debate on foreign policy.
"Chernenko wants to make sure his question gets asked," a Mondale adviser joked.
Advisers to both candidates also said that Chernenko's proposals were worth careful study to see if they represent an opportunity to break the stalemate between the superpowers on arms control.
"I look forward to seeing the text but don't want to react before I've studied it," said Robert C. McFarlane, the president's national security affairs adviser. "We'll give it careful consideration."
A Mondale adviser on foreign policy pointed out that the Democratic presidential nominee had urged Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko to negotiate seriously with Reagan when Mondale met with Gromyko on Sept. 27.
"If this is indeed a positive sign, anyone would have to welcome that," said the Mondale adviser, who spoke on condition that he not be identified.
Reagan administration officials, speaking under the same ground rules, said they thought Chernenko's comments were designed to highlight arms-control issues at a critical time in the U.S. presidential campaign. One official added that Chernenko also wanted to demonstrate for Soviet consumption that he is "not a cipher" but is participating actively in government decisions.
Chernenko, like Reagan, is 73. The Soviet president has been in poor health and frequently secluded in recent months.
Advisers to Reagan and Mondale emphasized that they could not speak definitively until they had studied the text of yesterday's Washington Post interview with Chernenko. Nevertheless, there was mild optimism within the administration that the Soviet leader, for whatever reasons, may have signaled a willingness after the Nov. 6 election to resume negotiations on reduction of strategic and medium-range nuclear arms. The Soviets abandoned the talks in Geneva last year.
One official noted that Chernenko "appeared to have emphasized" the opportunities for negotiations rather than the "obstacles" to them.
"As time goes on, perhaps by next spring, and they see that it is more and more in their interest to reach agreements with us, we can make some progress," this official said.
One administration official observed that two of the four items listed by Chernenko as "practical steps" that could be taken by the United States on arms control were "genuine matters for negotiation." He identified these as the proposal to conclude an agreement outlawing the "militarization of space" and the Soviet call for U.S. ratification of treaties on underground nuclear tests.
He said the other two proposals -- for a nuclear freeze and a pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons -- were "non-starters" in terms of serious negotiation, and that the focus given by Chernenko to the freeze proposal reflected the Soviet emphasis on the U.S. election campaign.
Reagan has persistently opposed a nuclear freeze as unworkable and dangerous to U.S. security. Mondale favors what he calls a mutual and verifiable freeze.
Another official said the Soviets have been "more than usually involved" in this year's U.S. presidential campaign. He pointed to Gromyko's meeting with Reagan at the White House on Sept. 28, the day after the Soviet leader's meeting with Mondale.
"It seems from the quick reading that Chernenko is saying the same things we have been saying about the relationship, which is that it doesn't depend on personalities but on objective realities as they see it," an administration official said. "They're not likely to change their policies as a result of our rhetoric or our elections except as they see it in their interests. We think it will be in their interest in the long run because of the continued strain on their system caused by their attempts to keep up with a resurgent America."
Reagan's basic view of U.S.-Soviet relations, expressed in a 1980 interview with The Post and since repeated, is that the Soviets will bargain seriously once it becomes clear to them that the United States is prepared to match or outspend them militarily.