The basic political strategy of both parties in the already nearing presidential election is now emerging. Republicans, as one top party activist puts it, are pursuing a ''watchful waiting'' approach to the campaign.
The party's superchief, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, calls it noninvolvement.
Over breakfast the other morning, the general chairman of the Republican National Committee stressed the importance of keeping the GOP presidential candidate out of the race for as long as possible. This delay, he said, would let the many Democratic candidates ''cut each other up'' and hurt their party's image and prospects. Mr. Laxalt, who should know, says the President will not be announcing his candidacy until late summer or early fall.
Will the President definitely be running? he was asked. Of course, Laxalt said - he wouldn't have taken his job as the top policy person in the party, even above the party chairman, if he hadn't been assured that the President intended to run.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are setting up a policy that some high party functionaries call ''containment.'' It means, as Democratic National Chairman Charles Manatt spelled out to reporters on the morning before the Laxalt appearance, a determined effort to keep harmony by taking steps to prevent squabbles from occurring.
Mr. Manatt is counseling the candidates to try to avoid speaking ill of each other. He is telling them they must scrupulously stay away from attacks on one another that would bring about what Laxalt now predicts: ''blood being spilled'' on the Democratic side. The lead time that the Democrats will have over the Republicans in the campaign is both a distinct advantage and a great risk, in Manatt's view.
Laxalt says the Democratic candidates are already digging hard at each other. Recently, at a breakfast, candidate Ernest F. Hollings commented that he thought candidate Walter F. Mondale's approach to dealing with the Soviets was one of immediately getting together with the Soviet leaders and then announcing a ''surrender.''
Jimmy Carter, not a candidate but definitely a part of the presidential-race picture, as Laxalt sees it, recently jabbed hard at his former vice-president, saying Mr. Mondale's trade policies could lead to a ''trade war.''