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Reagan takes GOP themes for a test drive in Atlanta

As Republicans maneuver to hold on to the White House and bolster their numbers in Congress this fall, what themes are they likely to be stressing with voters?

The President's recent speech in Atlanta signaled what may be the keynotes not merely of a GOP Southern strategy but the rallying points for the national campaign that lies ahead. Voters are likely to be hearing:

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* Calls for a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer periods in school.

* Promises to make further cuts in government spending - not a tax increase - to fight the huge deficits.

* Plenty of assurances that the United States is better off now than it was three years ago, when Reagan came into office.

Democrats will be blamed for the deficits, with the reasoning that years of high federal spending cannot be reversed quickly and that Congress, not the President, has the constitutional power to initiate spending.

Who is suggesting such a Republican strategy? None other than Ronald Reagan. He is doing so by example. In his first speech after the State of the Union message last week, he tried out some of these themes at a massive gathering here billed as a bipartisan salute to free enterprise. Except for brief appearances of a few Georgia Democrats, it was little short of a Republican rally, complete with the waving of thousands of miniature American flags and standing ovations.

And from a seat in the middle of one section of the jammed arena, about 20 rows above the red-robed Atlanta Boy Choir, one could informally register (by the amount of applause) some of the themes likely to play well for Republicans this political season. One young woman waves a tiny Stars and Stripes. Next to her, a man in a business suit awaits the President.

One of the sponsors of the event was Amway, a direct-sales company whose owners have supported Reagan in the past. Cheers for the top Amway officials lasted almost as long as the cheers for the President when he walked onto the podium.

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The President showed he is not about to back away from the general themes that propelled him into the White House in 1980.

The loudest outburst came midway in the President's speech when he called for a constitutional amendment allowing voluntary prayer in public schools. Immediately, thousands of flag wavers and others were on their feet, cheering and applauding, including the woman with the flag - but not the man in the business suit. He simply smiled and laughed. He had been on his feet a number of times before.

The President next mentioned, in just one sentence, the importance of ''caring for the needy.'' No applause or cheers could be heard in the arena.

But another topic again brought loud cheers. Speaking of crime, the President called for ''swift and sure punishment for the guilty.''

''All right,'' one lady said in a loud voice of approval.

Another standing ovation came when the President asked citizens to ''tell the people in Washington'' of their support for less federal spending and that the ''American dream'' can and will be saved.

But he received only moderate applause for some items, such as: ''We are a government of and by the people - not the other way around''; interest rates are lower than a few years ago; and a call for a line-item veto power for the President.

And he got even less applause for other points: increased opportunities for women in business and a call for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

In his brief speech at the event, Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris (D) got in one of the few divergent points of the afternoon when he said: ''You can't borrow yourself out of debt, and you can't spend money you don't have.''

He got strong applause for that, but only an undecipherable exclamatory sound from the man in the business suit.

Outside, demonstrators accused the President of racism and forgetting the poor. A laid-off machine worker said she was ''not against America, but there's no reason for anyone to go hungry, to go without a job.''

In a nearby parking lot, a black man, jobless for two years, said the President's policies have hurt blacks and the elderly.

After the main speech, the President addressed several hundred Southern Republicans in a hotel ballroom. A woman carrying a mink coat and heading into the ballroom said the President's mention of school prayer was the item that she liked best about the speech. School prayer was most frequently mentioned in other interviews in the ballroom. No one interviewed in the partisan gathering in the ballroom had any trouble blaming the Democrats for the current federal deficits.


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