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Reagan's Rousing Return

Reborn in New Hampshire, he looks to more gains in the South

[TIME Magazine Cover]

(Time; March 10, 1980) -- He is that crinkly and blandly familiar face from scores of old movies on afternoon TV, that two-time loser for the Republican presidential nomination who has not been elected to any public office for a decade. Ronald Reagan, 69, seemed so complacent and venerable a Republican front runner that he hardly campaigned at all in Iowa, and his jarring defeat there at the hands of peppy, preppy George Bush, 55, prompted many of his followers to wonder whether he could ever make comeback. The most reliable public polls on the eve of the New Hampshire primary rated him no more than neck and neck with the onrushing Bush. Even veteran Republican politicians shrugged off any prospect of a major Reagan victory. "If that happens," said Gordon Nelson, G.O.P. chairman in neighboring Massachusetts, "I'm the Easter bunny."

Last week it was Easter in February and Nelson may have felt long, floppy ears growing out of his head. For when the votes were counted in New Hampshire Tuesday night, Reagan had turned the Republican race upside down-again. He did not just win in what had been billed as a neck-and-neck contest; he swamped Bush by more than 2 to 1, and with 50% of the ballots, collected as many votes as his six G.O.P. rivals combined. (The breakdown: Bush, 23%; Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, 13%; Illinois Liberal Representative John Anderson, 10%; former Texas Governor John Connally and Illinois Representative Philip Crane, 2% each, Kansas Senator Robert Dole, the vice-presidential nominee just four years ago, received exactly 607 votes, less than half of 1%.) By so doing, Reagan clearly re-established himself as the Republican front runner, the big man to beat from now to the Detroit nominating convention in July.

Being in front is a happy but hazardous position in what is shaping up as the most volatile G.O.P. primary campaign since the Goldwater-Rockefeller-Scranton battles of 1964. The race, as well as the frame of mind of the voting public, is not only volatile but deceptive. "In primaries you never know what the voters mean," said raspy-voiced, chain-smoking Gerald Carmen, Reagan's shrewd coordinator in New Hampshire. "Are they just looking, just talking, just thinking?" Reagan himself had a euphoric answer. "I don't know about the hierarchy and the upper regions; I know about the people," he told cheering followers at a motel in Manchester the night of the big victory. "Now Nancy and I are flying over to Vermont (to campaign for the March 4 primary), and we won't need an airplane." Ecstatic Reagan staffers were telling jokes at the expense of the fallen George Bush. Sample: "Question: Why does Bush carry a turkey under his arm? Answer: for spare parts."

But Bush is not ready to be plucked yet, and Reagan knows it. New Hampshire was only the first of 35 state primaries; Bush had built an impressive organization for this week's contest in Massachusetts, a liberal state where Reagan appeared to have limited support. And Reagan put his whole future campaign into question by dismissing, several hours before the polls closed on election night in New Hampshire, his controversial campaign manager, John Sears. Still, for the immediate future, both momentum and the calendar favor Reagan. The early March contest are in the Dixie states of South Carolina (March 8), Georgia, Alabama and Florida (all March 11). This is conservative country, where Reagan is strong. The next major confrontation will come in the Illinois primary on March 18, the first in any of the delegate rich industrial states.

There is always a chance that the many Republicans who consider Reagan too conservative and simply too old to win the presidency will coalesce behind an alternative candidate. That could be Bush, Senate minority Leader Howard Baker, 54, or even ex-President Gerald Ford, 66, who appears sorely tempted to enter the race in an attempt to head off Reagan, his old nemesis from 1976.

But Reagan at least deflated the balloon of Bush, his highest-flying early challenger. Bush, the former envoy to the United Nations and to China, former Republican National Chairman and former CIA director, had modeled his entire campaign strategy on the one followed by Jimmy Carter in 1976. He hoped to win national attention in Iowa, as he certainly did, ride the sudden burst of publicity into upset victories or at least strong showings in the early primaries, and then parlay those triumphs into the nomination. In the glorious and innocent weeks between Iowa and New Hampshire, Bush bragged incessantly in his Ivy League-cheerleader tones of having "the Big Mo" (momentum). But he did only well enough to maintain his new status as No. 2 going into the Southern round. Gamely and accurately, Bush summed up his New Hampshire debacle in a postprimary phone call to Reagan: "Ron, congratulations, sir. You beat the hell out of me."

How did Reagan do it? Bush's strategists were ready -- after the vote -- with a barrage of excuses. For one thing, the exhausted Bush flew home to Houston the weekend before the vote, while Reagan campaigned to the bitter end. Thus New Hampshire television viewers on Sunday and Monday saw pictures of Bush resting beside his Texas swimming pool while Reagan was doggedly plowing through chilled New Hampshire crowds -- an odd contrast for a campaign in which Reagan's age was supposed to be a major handicap. Heavy stress was placed on the brutal daily pummeling Bush took in the Manchester Union Leader. New Hampshire's only statewide paper -- though Publisher William Loeb has berated other candidates in other primaries with limited consequences.

Then came the debates. In the first one, including all seven candidates, Reagan seemed stiff and ill at ease, but his private polls told him that he came across well, that the tide was already turning. He did even better in the furious flap over a Reagan-Bush debate the Saturday night before the primary. Reagan had challenged Bush to a one-on-one debate, sponsored by the Nashua, N.H. Telegraph, then agreed to pay the tab and artfully invited in four other candidates, Anderson, Baker, Crane and Dole. The Telegraph refused to change the rules for the debate, despite Reagan's angry protests, and a thoroughly flustered Bush supported the newspaper. The other candidates then charged out, accusing Bush of silencing them. The absurd scene made a strong impression on New Hampshire voters to whom Bush had been trying to sell himself as "a President we won't have to train." If he could not cope with so minor a contretemps, voters wondered, how would he react in an international crisis?

Reagan, on the other hand, was masterful. At one point, when he was arguing that the other four candidates should participate, Telegraph Editor Jon Breen ordered the power in his microphone shut off. Reagan shouted, with impressive, raw anger, "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green (sic)!" Said an admiring aide to Howard Baker: "There were cells in Reagan's body that hadn't seen blood for years. He was terrific!" Reagan's own judgment: "Maybe the people like to see a candidate sometimes not under control."

All these fleeting phenomena taken together, though, do not come close to accounting for the scope of Reagan's unexpected victory. He won mostly by being himself: the old actor who excited so many Republicans in 1976; the propounder of unqualified conservative answers to the most fearsomely complex problems; the deliverer of the harshest barbs in a voice of smooth geniality. Even though the voters of New Hampshire are scarcely representative of the U.S. electorate, the fact that he turned them on once again last week focuses new attention on that puzzling and enduring phenomenon of Republican politics, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

As the political season began, the nation was supposed to see a new Reagan: as conservative as ever, but speaking in gentler words, campaigning less strenuously, maintaining a benign air toward rivals. The reasoning was developed by John Sears: after his previous campaigns, all Republicans knew where Reagan stood so there was no longer any need to fire up the conservatives. Rather, the necessity was to maintain what seemed like a long lead by shunning any rhetoric that would frighten away moderates. Thus Reagan in January uncharacteristically fudged the wording of a suggestion that the U.S. supply arms to the anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, though the proposal was hardly radical. Said Reagan to TIME Senior Correspondent Laurence Barrett: "I suppose I got hung up out of fear of distortion."

The air of restraint succeeded only in making Reagan look as if he had lost his old enthusiasm -- because of his age, some voters uncharitably suspected -- and the strategy collapsed in the Jan. 21 Iowa caucuses. Out of that defeat charged the Reagan of yore, campaigning full time across New Hampshire and banging away again at all his old targets with stimulating vigor: "There is enough fat in the Federal Government that if you rendered it, there would be enough soap to wash the whole world." Some 22 position papers designed to portray Reagan as a positive thinker were filed and forgotten. Instead, Reagan presented once again his nostalgic vision of a day still to be recaptured, when the individual was great and the Government small, the U.S. flag and dollar respected everywhere.

The key to Reagan's popular appeal is his genuine belief that "there are simple answers" to the most complex problems. Some examples:

-- Inflation. "Government causes inflation, and Government can make it go away." How? By cutting income taxes 30% over the next three years. That, in Reagan's view, would pep up the economy and produce enough new revenue to balance the budget of a Government that he would significantly reduce in size. First step: turning over all welfare administration and funding to states and localities which in compensation would be allowed to keep what he vaguely calls "X%" of all the federal taxes collected within their borders.

-- Energy. "The energy industry today is virtually nationalized." If all Government controls on energy and agriculture are ended, Reagan says, and "if we turn both of them loose in the marketplace, they will produce the food and fuel we need." No special effort to conserve energy is necessary: "We are energy rich."

-- Foreign Affairs. The Soviet Union has not changed since Stalin's time. "It has one course and one course only. It is dedicated to the belief that it is going to take over the world." Moreover, the Soviets have been winning everywhere for 25 years because of a U.S. "foreign policy bordering on appeasement." Washington has seriously weakened U.S. defenses, and what is needed is a rapid buildup in all types of arms. "Tune out those cynics, pacifists and appeasers who tell us the Army and Navy of this country are nothing but extensions of some malevolent military-industrial complex. There is only the military- industrial complex whose operations should concern us, and it is not located in Arlington, Va., but in Moscow." He fervently believes that the Soviet Union will back down in any confrontation with the U.S. One passage that never fails to win loud applause: "The President said we must ratify the SALT II treaty because no one will like us if we don't. He said he should give away the Panama Canal because no on would like us if he didn't. It is time to tell the President, 'We don't care if they like us or not. We intend to be respected throughout the world.'"

-- Social Issues. He is a hard conservative on every one. He is outspokenly opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment, in contrast to some of his rivals (Bush, as a Congressman, supported it). As Governor of California. Reagan signed a relatively liberal abortion law, but now says that was a mistake; he advocates a constitutional amendment forbidding all abortions except those necessary to save the lives of mothers. He proposes another amendment to permit "voluntary" school prayer: "I think we are a nation under God. I think we have too many people in this country today who are interpreting freedom of religion as freedom from religion." Marijuana is "probably the worst and most dangerous drug in America today."

Much of this message sounds less arrestingly different than it did in 1968 or 1976. The ideas that the Government causes most of inflation, that a balanced budget is necessary and that the U.S. needs a major defense buildup have become staples of political oratory, proclaimed not only by conservative Republicans but by many Democrats. Said Reagan to the New York Conservative Party in January: "Remember when we were a collection of little old ladies in tennis shoes and ultra-right- wing kooks? We've become respectable."

Not completely. To some Republicans, not to mention independents and Democrats, Reagan's ideas sound less than compelling. Deep tax cuts could soon swell the inflationary federal deficit, and though all Republicans want to reduce the size of the Government, some doubt that it can or even should be slashed as drastically as Reagan advocates Wasteful and misguided as many of Washington's social programs are, some at least are aimed at genuine needs that states and cities are not equipped to meet. Hardly any energy executives think the U.S. can be self- sufficient in fuel in this century; just to keep imports of foreign oil from rising will require a determined conservation effort. The dangers of forcing confrontation with the Soviets are obvious.

Nonetheless, Reagan is clearly telling many Republicans what they most want to hear, and if others are now sounding almost equally conservative, Reagan has been preaching his views longer and louder than anyone else. So his audiences forgive him for, or do not even notice, some remarkable misstatements that make Reagan sound at best ill informed.

The most starling of these so far has been a Reagan assertion, in support of his contention that the U.S. could be self-sufficient in energy without Government controls, that Alaska alone has more oil than Saudi Arabia. It turned out that he was comparing oil already discovered in Saudi Arabia with oil that might someday be found in Alaska -- and even on that basis he got the figures wrong. The highest guess for possible Alaskan reserves is 100 billion bbl., of which only 9.6 billion bbl. are considered proven reserves. Saudi Arabia has 200 billion bbl. in proven reserves alone, and perhaps as much as 530 billion bbl. in possible reserves.

Despite his stern rhetoric, Reagan is almost never visibly angered, even by the most hostile questions, and banters easily with practically anyone; he and his wife Nancy have made a ritual of passing out candy to reporters on campaign planes and buses. The old entertainer usually seeks to entertain his companions too. On a campaign bus driving through a heavy snow in New Hampshire, he started out with a labored joke: "If anyone hears dogs barking, it's because the next leg will be done by sled." That led to a stream-of-consciousness monologue skipping erratically from dogs to other animals to firearms (Reagan has a small gun collection and does some target shooting, though he does not hunt) and concluding with a reading aloud from that day's installment of Doonesbury, one of Reagan's favorite comic strips. In a 1965 autobiography, recalling his elation at acting in college plays, Reagan wrote, "Nature was trying to tell me something -- namely, that my heart is a hamloaf."

On the campaign trail, Reagan does very little handshaking; his standard appearance is a short speech followed by a question- and-answer session. With the actor in him again coming out, he loves to roll words around and test out lines, noting and then repeating at the next stop whichever ones get the loudest laughs or applause. At the end of the New Hampshire campaign, he could feel affection flowing from the crowds, and he responded exuberantly. His last appearance before the vote was a classic campaign scene: a crowd of 300 gathered inside the white clapboard town hall in New Boston (pop. 1,630); sirens screeched, bells clanged and lights flashed from a firehouse across the street; a brass band belted out lusty, if strangely matched, renditions of God Bless America and Ease on Down the Road. Reagan, visibly buoyed, even got off some unrehearsed one-liners. When a local politician proudly showed him the town's 90-year-old heavy polished-oak ballot box, Reagan cracked, "I'd like to stuff that ballot box."

Away from the crowds, Reagan has an odd kind of little-boy quality that makes his wife and staff protect him. Aides are forever reminding him to get his dinner, to put on his overcoat, to make in public some interesting point he had discussed with them privately. However, relations between Reagan and his staff, for all its consideration and devotion, are strictly businesslike. None of his present aides address Reagan as anything but "Governor." For personal friendship, Reagan turns at home to old buddies from his movie days, among them William Holden and Jimmy Stewart, and a few of the California businessmen who first backed him for Governor 14 years ago.

Reagan's wife Nancy is a gracious and attractive woman of 53. They will celebrate their 28th anniversary this week. She travels with "Ronnie" (a nickname that only she and a few of his closest friends use) as adoring fan and adviser in small things. "Smile, honey, smile!" she will whisper to the candidate as he gets ready to tape a TV interview. A onetime movie actress who appeared in such films as East Side, West Side (1949) and Shadown on the Wall (1950), she gave up her career to marry Reagan. The candidate seems quite accurate when he says, "Any interest that she has in politics, she got from me." She does play a significant part, however, in Reagan's decisions about his staff.

Nancy makes occasional separate appearances, but limits them to innocuous Q-and-A, sessions. Says she: "Making a speech would scare me to death." When Reagan is speaking, she sits near by watching him with rapt attention, laughing at the little jokes she has heard scores of times. Why? "There is always something different in the audience or the setting, and I do enjoy hearing Ronnie talk."

Reagan copes good-humoredly with a subterranean but important issue: his age. He jokes about it at senior citizens' meetings, and once amiably let a TV reporter run her fingers through his gray-streaked brown hair to see if it was dyed; she could not find any signs that it was. Other evidence is equally inconclusive. In TV closeups, Reagan sometimes looks wrinkled and wattled. He seems to walk a bit stiffly and sometimes has difficulty hearing questions from an audience.

His afflictions are minor and might not even be noticed if Reagan were not under the most intense scrutiny. He plows through grueling campaign days with apparently undiminished vigor, though he does try to get eight hours of sleep a night; and until late in the New Hampshire campaign he insisted on flying back to California every weekend to relax at his ranch, a $1.5 million enclave near Santa Barbara that few reporters or even campaign aides are ever permitted to visit. His doctors insist that he is in "remarkably good" health, and he maintains a hard campaign schedule without feeling any need to exercise or watch his diet. Quite the contrary: he is one of the few politicians who regularly eat the food at banquets), and he complains mildly that he is often called on to speak before he can start on the dessert.

Reagan has some other problems that could become serious in future primaries. One is his campaign staff -- or what is left of it. This staff is by far the biggest working for any candidate in either party this year. In some ways it is superbly organized. Advancemen carry a check list of 106 items for every Reagan stop: staffers' hotel rooms must be at least one floor away from those occupied by reporters; the hotel's full restaurant menu, not just an abbreviated room-service version, must be available to Reagan and Nancy; the lectern from which the 6-ft. 1-in. Reagan is to give any formal speech must be precisely 43 in. high. But there was angry infighting that led to last week's shake-up, and there are odd gaps. Strangely enough for a candidate with Reagan's acting experience, there is no one in overall charge of preparing TV commercials; the first two taped for the New Hampshire campaign had to be discarded because they dealt exclusively with domestic policy at a time when the attention of the voters had swung to foreign affairs, and they were dull besides. Nor is there any full-time speechwriter. Reagan reserves that job for himself, endlessly scribbling passages on 4-in. by 6-in. index cards, which he shuffles into new arrangements to vary the standard speech that he delivers at every town hall and country club: he blames some of his fluffs on difficulty in reading his own shorthand.

Far more important, Reagan has somehow managed already to spend $12 million of the $18 million he is allowed under federal election laws to pay out for all the rest of the pre-convention campaign. Part of the reason is that his managers figured they could spend lavishly in the early stages, on the theory that after the Illinois primary, Reagan would have the nomination locked up. That might happen, but if his rivals manage to prolong a close contest past Illinois, Reagan could be severely crimped in the decisive late primaries. His difficulties, however, pale alongside those faced by his competitors after New Hampshire.

George Bush has undeniable assets. His recitation of the top Government jobs he has held -- in his words, his "fantastic credentials" for the presidency -- sometimes bring oohs and has from the voters. As a New England aristocrat who moved to Texas and made a fortune in the oil business, he endlessly boasts that he is one candidate who has actually met a payroll. He preaches a bubbly optimism ("I just know we can solve all our problems"). He is a demon campaigner, who started so early that he often tells audiences, accurately, that his race is already two-thirds over, and he has proved himself an expert at putting together an extensive political organization.

But intense personal campaigning and superb grass-roots organization were not the whole explanation of why Bush did so well in the Iowa caucuses. He was also a fresh face, and an energetic and appealing alternative to Reagan. His victory, and his rocketing rise in the polls that followed, subjected him to an intense level of examination that caused him trouble in New Hampshire. Once a dull speaker, Bush has adopted an excitable platform manner that is not always impressive: his sentences sometimes come out in a jumble, and his hyperactive gestures occasionally appear to be out of sync with his words. He sometimes speaks in a mystifying CIA jargon; he will refer to a suit as his "gray unit" and tell audiences that the U.S. must "stay ahead of the power curve."

Bush's basic difficulty is that he is trying to be all things to all Republicans. His views on most issues are nearly as conservative as those of Reagan. He too wants to reduce federal spending programs, slash regulation of business, cut taxes in such a way as to stimulate investment, while still sharply increasing defense spending and adopting a much tougher policy toward the Soviets.

But Bush seeks to present these positions in a more moderate tone than Reagan; he would not cut taxes so deeply as Reagan would. Bush, like Reagan, is against the Panama Canal treaties, but voices concern about seeming to ally the U.S. with outdated colonialism. There is a strong case to be made for a fundamentally conservative posture that manages to recognize the complexities of the modern world -- but Bush in New Hampshire did not make that case, and partly by design. He repeatedly refused to be specific. He had a budget drawn up detailing just which social programs he would cut by how much to balance tax cuts and increased defense spending, but he decided not to present it. His candid explanation: "Whatever I do will depend on whether it will help me get the nomination."

In addition, Bush got himself tagged with a charge that has proved damaging: that his background (Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones) made him a member of the Eastern liberal establishment. The accusation is unfair in view of Bush's basic conservatism, but it has hurt. Union Leader Publisher Loeb sneered at Bush as a "clean-fingernails Republican," and Senator Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire put out a large mailing asserting that Reagan was the only candidate who was not identified with the Eastern liberal "defeatist" complex. At meeting after meeting, Bush was asked whether he was a member of the Trilateral Commission (he was), a perfectly worthy and respectable group devoted to better relations among the U.S., Europe and Japan, which ultraconservatives portray as a sinister band of plotters bent of merging the U.S. with the Soviet Union. (Some other members: Henry Kissinger and two other members of the Nixon Cabinet, Peter Peterson and Caspar Weinberger; two Nixon appointees to the Council of Economic Advisers, Paul McCracken and Marina Whitman; Banker David Rockefeller.) When Reagan was asked about such quasi-Bilrchite charges, he did not disavow them. In fact, he said, "I hope it works." But he added piously, "I myself don't say things like that in a campaign and I'm not going to."

Late last week, Bush pledged to get more specific and more aggressive. "I will be sharpening the differences between Ronald Reagan and myself," he said, and he called on the press, reasonably enough, to demand exactitude from Reagan too. Asked Bush: "What is the date Governor Reagan has in mind when the Federal Government is going to have a balanced budget?" But some members of his staff wondered if Bush could make that approach work. Said one: "He has no sense of the jugular, and there is no use trying to make him into something he is not. He's a nice clean guy. He's the eagle." Asked another aide: "And the eagle has no talons?"

If Bush cannot recover, the logical candidate to stop Reagan would be Howard Baker. He has impressive credentials as a moderate conservative who speaks smoothly and sensibly, and has considerable experience in Washington (he has been a Senator since 1967). But he is suffering severely from a late start and showing little if any talent for campaign organizing. John Anderson's proud independence and stubborn insistence on advocating unpleasant proposals -- he hammers away on the need for a $.50-per gal. gasoline tax to reduce energy consumption -- have won much favorable media attention and a core of devoted followers. But the core remains small. John Connally's smooth wheeler-dealer conservatism has excited corporate executives but not the electorate; he has been reduced to staking everything on a strong showing in the primary in South Carolina, and even there he is running badly in the polls (8.8% in the latest one).

The real race, however, is just beginning. Some 60 of the eventual 1,994 delegates to the Detroit convention have so far been chosen; Reagan and Bush are tied with 22 each. During the next two week, Reagan has a chance to increase his lead and even possibly to knock one or two rivals out of contention -- especially Connally, if he runs poorly in South Carolina, where he is staging a $1 million blitz. On the other hand, Bush has an opportunity to solidify his standing as Reagan's chief rival, and he would not have to win in the Southern primaries to have to win in the Southern primaries to do so but merely finish close to Reagan.

Reagan has one intangible asset in the South: he campaigns better there than in the Northeast. He gestures more freely, speaks more vigorously, even looks younger. One reason may be the weather. Like many another Southern Californian, Reagan is far more at ease when he can strip off his suit jacket, as he did two weeks ago on the sun-drenched campus of Palm Beach Junior College in Florida. cried Reagan: "It is time to start a crash military buildup, to make us so strong that no one will ever again raise a hand against the U.S." the students cheered.

Southern crowds are generally receptive to a strongly conservative appeal, and the friendly reaction makes Reagan loosen up. On his brief Southern swing just before the close of the New Hampshire campaign, more than 2,500 young people jammed into the auditorium of Samford University in Birmingham and applauded even his most prosaic remarks. Reagan responded with some notably loose oratory. He repeated his opposition to registration for the draft -- a position that only ted Kennedy shares among the active candidates -- and then added, in reference to the possible registration of women: "There's something inherent in the draft that suggests combat. I don't want to be part of any society that puts women into combat." That was sometimes of a cheap shot at Jimmy Carter, who has also said that he would never permit the use of women in combat. Bush takes the same line, and less articulately. In one of his recent speeches he came out against "mixed sex in foxholes."

A string of Southern victories for Reagan would surprise no one, which brings the campaign to Illinois. If one of Reagan's rivals does not manage to beat Reagan there, his momentum could become unstoppable. In Illinois, as elsewhere, Reagan is benefiting from the fact that the vote opposing him is split up among a number of candidates. On the other hand, a Reagan defeat in Illinois -- especially if it followed an unexpected loss in one or two of the Southern states -- would probably lead to a hard race right up to the convention. Baker told supporters last week he would concentrate his efforts on making a comeback in Illinois, and Bush will be campaigning hard there too. As of now, all predictions are for a close contest. Says Don Totten, Reagan's Illinois chairman: "With the swings in the polls and the fickleness of the voters, it is hard to tell what is going to happen next."

However Reagan does in Illinois or the South, his triumph in New Hampshire virtually guarantees one thing. It is possible now to visualize any of his rivals being defeated so badly in the next few weeks as to be forced out of the race. It is no longer possible to foresee such a fate of Reagan. He may lose, but he will almost certainly be a strong contender to the end. His biggest problem may be that the very hard-line conservative positions that appeal to the enthusiasts who vote in G.O.P. primaries are exactly those that might not attract the much larger body of people who will vote in November.

"We Were Sandbagged"

One of the decisive events of the New Hampshire primary was the strange spectacle of an angry Ronald Reagan confronting a flustered George Bush on the stage of the Nashua High School gym, while four other candidates jostled behind them like hapless losers in a game of musical chairs. When the four stalked out, one of them, Representative John Anderson, summed up the group's protest. "The responsibility for this whole travesty rests with Mr. Bush." Countered Bush's New Hampshire campaign manager, Hugh Gregg, the next day: "We feel we were sandbagged."

Reaganites were admitting nothing, but there was evidence that the former Governor's strategists had engaged in some last- minute gamesmanship. It was Reagan who first challenged Bush to a two-man debate on Jan. 29, and the Nashua Telegraph (circ. 25,604) agreed to sponsor it. Two days before the debate, however, the federal Election Commission ruled that the paper's sponsorship amounted to an illegal-political contribution. Reagan offered to split the $3,500 tab with Bush. Bush refused, so Reagan paid for it all.

But on the day of the debate, Reagan suddenly began to worry about complaints from the excluded candidates. Besides, was it really to his advantage to treat Bush as the only other major candidate? Reagan operatives began, calling the other candidates -- Senator Howard Baker, Senator Robert Dole, Representative Phillip Crane and Anderson -- to invite them to the debate. Although Bush told the newspaper that he would reluctantly agree to a six-man debate, he was not told of the Reagan camp's maneuver -- whether accidentally or by design is up to each voter to decide for himself.

Once at the gym, Reagan and the four unscheduled candidates went into an anteroom to decide how to proceed. Bush arrived, knowing nothing of this turn of events. As he approached the dais, he was invited to join the others in the anteroom. He declined, pleading the press of time and thinking he might be walking into a trap. When Reagan finally appeared with the other four and argued for a six-man forum, Moderator Jon Breen editor of the Telegraph, insisted that the format would not be changed.

Then the now famous scene: Reagan grabbing the mike, Breen ordering the power cut off, and Reagan shouting back "I am paying for this microphone!" Pandemonium. "You Hitler!" someone yelled. "Didn't you ever hear of freedom of the press?" Throughout the uproar, Bush looked confused. "I was invited here by the editors of the Nashua newspaper," he said. "I am their guest. I will play by the rules, and I'm glad to be here." This was generally taken as support for a two-man debate.

When it was all over, Bush was still trying to explain. "Frankly, I feel he (Reagan) used you to set me up," he wrote to the four candidates the next day. Crane now agrees with that judgment. But the other three candidates still blame Bush for the debacle Reagan calls Bush's complaints "ridiculous." Admits Bush, with unquestionable accuracy: "I could have handled certain things better."

Ford: Ready to Tee Off?

In the wake of New Hampshire, there is little doubt that former President Gerald Ford is on the verge of deciding whether to plunge into the race for the Republican nomination. It is also clear that if he is to make his momentous move, he must do so in two or three weeks. Increasingly, some party pros are betting that Ford will decide to run. In a conversation with TIME last week, Ford himself made it plain that his candidacy was very possible.

Fit, tanned and outwardly relaxed as he ponders the campaign in his Palm Springs-area home, Ford looks eager to join the action. His telephone jangles repeatedly with calls from old political cronies urging him to announce his candidacy as their best hope of stopping Ronald Reagan. Apart from the lingering animosity from his close personal fight with Reagan in 1976, Ford shares the fears of many Republican leaders that Reagan could not win if the Democrats renominate President Carter. He doubts that the other Republicans in the race could win either.

Ford's supporters, on the other hand, feel that his record in the presidency would serve him well in a campaign against Carter. He could point to his reduction of inflation, his advocacy of more funds for defense, and the consistency of his foreign policy under Secretary of State henry Kissinger. Contends Bob Hughes, a longtime ford supporter in Ohio and G.O.P. chairman in Cleveland: "The American people this time are either going to vote for an incumbent President or someone who has been President."

Nor is all the telephoning incoming to Ford. On the morning after the New Hampshire primary, Hughes got a call from Palm Springs. It was Bob Barrett, one of Ford's top aides, who asked simply: "Are you still uncommitted?" Says Hughes: "I told him that I was sitting tight." Hughes is convinced that Ford will announce his candidacy shortly.

The endorsement of several Midwest Republican Governors, including Ohio's James Rhodes, Michigan's William Milliken, Illinois' Jim Thompson, Wisconsin's Lee Dreyfus and Indiana's Otis Bowen, could well follow. Already, some Ford backers are prepared to finance a national advertising campaign to promote his candidacy. Declared Chicago Republican Chairman Lou Kasper enthusiastically: "Ninety-eight percent of the Republican politicians I know would be for Jerry Ford if he runs. And I think he will run."

Why the new urgency about a Ford decision? Foremost is the possibility of a party rush toward Reagan in the glow of his New Hampshire victory. While Ford has talked in the past of waiting for a potential deadlock at the nominating convention, many of the party's pros consider that most unlikely. They also note that the filing deadlines for remaining key primary elections are either past or imminent. Nevertheless, if Ford were to start filing this week in all primaries still open, he would have a chance to win 729, or 36%, of the 1,994 national convention delegates. In addition, more than 400 other delegates are yet to be chosen in state caucuses or state conventions.

In practical terms, the final date for Ford to become a serious primary campaign challenger is March 21, the deadline for both the California primary, which will select 168 delegates, and Michigan, where home-state Republicans presumably would give Ford a big share of their 82 delegates. Republicans partial to Ford concede that Reagan would be a favorite in California, but they are fighting the state party's rule that awards all 168 delegates to the one candidate who tops the primary vote. They want to give Ford a shot at a share of that large chunk of delegates.

Not even Ford's most ardent supporters believe he could enter now and get enough of the remaining delegates to win outright on the convention's first ballot. Their strategy apparently would be to try to gain enough delegates to deny anybody a first-ballot victory. Then Ford would have to make a deal with one of the still surviving, candidates, most likely Howard Baker or George Bush, to gain a convention majority. An offer to share the ticket as a vice presidential candidate -- and heir apparent to the party leadership -- would be his main bargaining point.

Other veteran Republican strategists doubt any such plan could work. They contend that Ford's entry as an active candidate would merely further divide the anti-Reagan vote in the primaries, without seriously diminishing Reagan's level of support.

Some Republican leaders also wonder whether there might not be a bit of nostalgia in the current surge of sentiment for Ford. They compare the feeling to the earlier yearning in the Democratic Party for Ted Kennedy to run -- and a few see Ford almost as vulnerable to slippage once he enters what could be a bitter intraparty feud.

Yet last week, there was less doubt about the "if" of a Ford move; it seemed much more a matter of "when?"

Once Again, the Bush Thing

Call it the George Bush thing, since it is yet unnamed by Political Chronicler Theodore H. White. It is not the garden variety syndrome that even a political science professor could identify. The thing normally cannot be seen or heard. It is not easily documentable with dates and places and simple sentences. It is a shadow that has followed Bush throughout his national prominence. It showed up again in the New Hampshire campaign, and in the squalid Nashua argument over who should or should not debate. That helped trigger some of the electoral doubts that engulfed Bush in the primary.

It is now one of those ridiculous but important minidramas in the bizarre world of campaigning that may never be accurately sorted out, because so many people were involved and so much of the story hinges on perceptions and feelings jammed into a few minutes. The same sort of thing happened when John Kennedy, the new democratic nominee in 1960, offered Lyndon Johnson the vice- presidential slot, and L.B.J. astonished everyone by accepting. No one is yet certain how it all evolved.

Some scornful critics are suggesting that the Nashua incident portrayed Bush as the fragile, blue-blooded, rich Ivy Leaguer they always thought he was. They Ivy League takes a lot of bad raps. Strong men do emerge from those schools. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy went to Harvard and Gerald Ford to Yale.

The more thoughtful students of George Bush have always been concerned about a degree of sensitivity or reticence or perhaps propriety that seemed to suggest timidity. At crucial times in Bush's career that quality appeared and raised doubts about his fiber. This problem has grown disproportionately large in the house of magnifying mirrors that we now call the presidential selection process.

Examining such a subtle trait in a person like Bush with a record of established achievement is a journey into psychohistory, which is hazardous and which politicians hate. Yet those considerations can be terribly important in public perception and finally in public judgment of a leader.

Back in 1970, when Bush was running unsuccessfully a second time for the U.S. Senate from Texas, he looked to President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew for help -- but nervously. Nixon was growing testy over attacks charging that he had not liquidated the Viet Nam War. Agnew was Nixon's rude political and press hatchet man. Both spoke in Texas for Bush. Afterward, Bush had some second thoughts and canceled film clips of the Nixon visit in his efforts to walk a narrow line between the White House and his ambitions beyond. Ever so slightly those first impressions formed that Bush was too cautious.

In 1974 Bush was Republican national chairman as Watergate rose against Nixon, and Bush rekindled concerns about his propensity for hyperdeliberation. Why did he not distance the G.O.P. from Nixon? If he could not do that, then why did he not quit? His answer was like those of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and White House Chief of Staff General Alexander Haig. Bush stayed to preserve some order as the House of Nixon collapsed. Nixon's guilt had not been proved in court, nor had he been impeached. Bush tiptoed once more: mannered, thoughtful, searching for a civilized route through anarchy. But his quiet political diplomacy seemed to many to be excessively restrained at a time when the national interest demanded a loud and angry shout.

The question about Bush is now with us again. Why did he not instantly take charge of that New Hampshire squabble and either exit with firm grace or invite his rivals in with commanding confidence and humor? (After all, Ronald Reagan had enough presence to grab the mike.) Was it good manners, plain politeness, or was he momentarily anesthetized by the fear that the intrusion of others would dilute his thin lead over Reagan? In the end, it may be yet another lesson to all practitioners that in the era of superprogrammed politics, the natural man needs to be let out now and then.

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