President Reagan, shifting gears on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's unexpected refusal to set a date for a Washington summit, yesterday played down the setback by asserting that "we're in no hurry" for such a meeting.

Referring to Gorbachev's demand that the summit be tied to preliminary agreement restraining the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan added that "we certainly will not be pushed into sacrificing essential interests just to have a meeting."

In a statement that contrasted with the disappointment he and Secretary of State George P. Shultz expressed Friday, Reagan said in his weekly radio address that "we're closer now to completing a treaty" eliminating medium- and shorter-range nuclear missiles as a result of the discussions Shultz held in Moscow this week with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

In Brussels, staff writer Edward Cody reported that European allies expressed surprise and disappointment yesterday at the Soviet decision not to fix a summit date, but Shultz said that once a treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) in Europe is wrapped up, it could be signed in another setting if Gorbachev is not ready to come to the United States.

Shultz appeared to go out of his way to dissociate summit doubts from the fate or schedule of the INF accord. {Details, Page 33.}

White House officials said Reagan's comments were part of a concerted effort by the administration to allay widening concern that the Moscow meeting was a failure. The concerns were fanned, they said, by what they described as an unnecessarily dour statement by Shultz at a news conference after the meeting was over, and by overly optimistic predictions about the outcome of the meeting.

"Shultz made it a lot worse than it really is," said one White House official, adding that his performance made the meeting seem "like Reykjavik all over again."

Last year at the Reykjavik summit, promising arms-control talks fell apart over SDI, which is aimed at developing a ballistic missile defense. Within hours after the Reykjavik setback, however, the White House mounted an intensive damage-control effort aimed at promoting the view that the meeting had been a success, a viewpoint that was ultimately undercut by decisions on both sides to ignore the major proposals they put forward there.

Reagan similarly put a positive face on Shultz's Moscow meeting when he said yesterday that "no date was set for a summit meeting, but we're in no hurry." But some White House and arms-control officials acknowledged it is difficult to shrug off earlier anticipation that a Washington summit would be a public relations bonanza for the administration.

According to the scenario sketched earlier by both U.S. and Soviet officials, Gorbachev would have come to Washington to sign the treaty eliminating medium- and shorter-range missiles, and then tour the nation, perhaps spending Thanksgiving at Reagan's California ranch.

White House officials counted heavily on the event to boost Reagan's public image as well as his role in history, and Republican politicians have counted on a summit here to help the GOP in the 1988 elections.

But they said Gorbachev's decision left the White House with little alternative but to try and call his bluff by agreeing to sign the INF treaty elsewhere, even in a ceremony led by foreign ministers rather than by Reagan and Gorbachev.

As Shultz said in Brussels yesterday, "I think it would be good to have a summit" for the signing of the treaty. "But if it isn't convenient to do it in a timely fashion, then we can look for another way."

Some arms-control officials went so far as to suggest that Gorbachev's decision eliminates the need for the United States to back away from what they said was an unrealistic timetable for the treaty that both sides set during Shevardnadze's visit to Washington last month.

"Both sides have been guilty of minimizing the work yet to be done" on the treaty, one official said. "Much of what we said about how quickly it could be done was bravado."

Officials said the progress cited by Reagan yesterday primarily involved a joint understanding about the timetable for dismantling the missiles covered by the agreement, and 72 Pershing IA missiles that are owned by West Germany but armed with U.S. warheads. Previously, the Soviets had insisted that 72 of their missiles remain intact until the Pershing IAs were dismantled, while Germany insisted that all Soviet missiles be destroyed first.

The Soviets ultimately agreed however that the Pershing IAs could be destroyed within two weeks after all U.S. and Soviet missiles were destroyed. All other shorter-range missiles would be dismantled within a year to 18 months after the treaty takes effect, and medium-range missiles within three years.

The two sides also agreed in Moscow to ease the contentious problem of verifying compliance by exchanging data on their current missile stocks even before the treaty is completed. And the Soviets dropped a previous demand, which the United States deemed unverifiable, that all missile warheads be withdrawn within the first year of the accord.

But the two sides were unable to make progress on additional aspects of verification, U.S. officials said, and the disputes probably cannot be settled in less than six to eight weeks, if then.

One argument concerns a Soviet demand for access to U.S. cruise missile production plants and to suspect missile deployment sites in Western Europe, which the United States does not want to grant. Another concerns a U.S. demand for a quota or limit of 10 to 15 on-site inspections per year, which the Soviets feel is excessive.