'The Kremlin follows th' pre-iliction returns'
John Glenn, Gary Hart, et al. may be worrying privately about the success of the Mondale juggernaut as the sink-or-swim primaries approach. But Kremlin planners appear to take an opposite view.
The men of the Politburo are terribly disappointed, according to some Western Sovietologists returning from Moscow, that the Democrats in general, and Mondale in particular, are not gaining on President Reagan in the polls.
Pundits constantly remind us of Mr. Dooley's dictum that ''th' supreme coort follows th' iliction returns.'' If Peter Finley Dunne were writing his aphorisms today he might add that ''th' Politburee follows th' pre-iliction returns.''
The Soviet leaders are widely presumed to be watching the political polls, with accompanying analysis by Ambassador Dobrynin in Washington.
Those polls have begun to intensify the dilemma facing Yuri Andropov and his colleagues. It is hardly original to note that Mr. Andropov would prefer not to negotiate with Mr. Reagan if he could hope that by this time next year a Democratic presidency would be starting.
Nor is it original to note that if a Reagan reelection seems likely, Andropov and company might prefer negotiating before November rather than after.
The idea that Moscow would have more leverage if it ''helped'' Mr. Reagan's campaign by sitting down with him (thus handing him the so-called peace issue) is almost a cliche. But it is no less valid for being a cliche.
American polls are one of three important barometers that Kremlinologists believe the Politburo and its support staff are watching closely. The two others are (1) pressures from East-bloc leaders urging a return to serious negotiation with the United States and (2) the tide of Western European public opinion as first Mr. Reagan, then Mr. Andropov, woo the Europeans with peace speeches.
Analysts like Marshall Goldman, associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard, are intrigued with what appears to be substantial (although not decisive) resistance to installation of more Soviet intermediate-range missiles in Warsaw Pact countries. This resistance appears to have been fed by Moscow's antimissile campaign in the West.
Even so unwavering a Kremlin ally as Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov was reported last fall to be expressing concern that his country might be in the path of a nuclear missile war. And Bulgaria lies to the south of the main trajectories.
Despite pressures from both sides of Europe's rusty iron curtain, Mr. Andropov and his defense chief, Dmitri Ustinov, have not wanted to hand Mr. Reagan the ''peacemaker'' label for his election campaign. They would do so if they agreed to his latest call for talks.
Result: Mr. Andropov's carefully crafted written reply Jan. 24 to Mr. Reagan's olive branch speech of Jan. 16. The Andropov text was a courteous brushoff to the US President's tender of an olive branch without olives.
The hopeful part of this high-level fencing is that both leaders have ended their earlier slurring match. The less hopeful side is that each side appears to be mainly playing for the galleries and for time. Neither has made concrete new proposals for reducing either arms or tensions.
It appears likely that the Andropov team will watch Mr. Reagan's standing in the polls closely for several more months before deciding what to do.
Columbia University's noted Soviet analyst, Seweryn Bialer, suggested to me last week that if President Reagan wants to take a dramatic initiative that would force a Kremlin decision, he could ''make a strong appeal for a summit meeting.''
''That,'' said Professor Bialer, ''would be hard to refuse with both West and East Europe pressing for acceptance.''
For genuinely improved US-Soviet relations, then, one of three things appears to be needed: continuing Reagan dominance in the polls, a Democratic win next fall, or a dramatic summit appeal.
Otherwise we may face only a grim duel of olive branches.