FORD AND REAGAN IN ROUND ONE: LET’S CALL IT A DRAW
FORD AND REAGAN IN ROUND ONE: LET’S CALL IT A DRAW
Shortly before midnight on the day of the New Hampshire primary, Stuart Spencer, President Ford’s political campaign director, lost his cool. Weary with the hour and worried about Ronald Reagan’s early lead, he uttered what was until then unspeakable in Ford’s camp: “Nixon is working against the President,” he said. “He wants to see Ford beaten so that his pal John Connolly can enter the race.” Whatever the selfish motivations and objectives of the disgraced former President as he was feted in Peking, there was little doubt that the timing of his trip to China took a toll on Gerald Ford in his first encounter with the electorate as President.
The enormous publicity generated by Nixon’s visit with Mao Tse-tung overshadowed Ford’s final campaign days. Moreover, it reopened the scars of Watergate. The reality of Nixon’s freedom brought sharp and critical focus back to the wisdom—or lack of it—that Ford demonstrated when he pardoned Nixon. Perhaps that was at least part of the reason why Ford greeted the New Hampshire outcome, which gave him only 51 % of the popular vote and a plurality of a mere 1,896 votes over Ronald Reagan, as a victory.
But even as press secretary Ron Nessen was proclaiming that the President was “delighted” with his wafer-thin margin, Reagan’s camp was making the most of his narrow loss. With practised political hyperbole, Reagan said he regarded the tally as “a victory” and declared “no one has ever done this to an incumbent” in a primary. To Reagan followers at least, that meant the former California governor was capable of beating Ford at the Republican nomination convention in August.
The inconclusive New Hampshire results gave strategists in both camps much to contemplate. In a conservative state coping with high unemployment and a stagnant industrial growth, Reagan’s rightwing jabs at the Ford Administration were clearly finding their mark. Ford’s advisers have always recognized that the ex-movie star is glib and a crowd pleaser capable of turning audiences with his ready wit and quick jibes. He proved it under fire in New Hampshire. In town after town he met with gatherings of 100 to 200 voters and exploited his considerable stage presence through his “Citizens Press Conference” technique of opening with a short address and then throwing the meeting open to questions. Over and over he told voters, “Today we are on the brink of economic ruin,” and laid the responsibility on Ford Administration spending programs, sig-
nificantly its welfare and emergency unemployment funds. He criticized Washington’s version of détente and advocated a hard-line foreign policy toward Cuba and the Communist states. He told the crowds: “We must have faith in the marketplace ... we have burdened industry, business and small business particularly with regulations and tax structures all of which militate against their ability to go out and function in the marketplace.” But the major thrust of his attack was on big government and the need for Washington to cut inflation by reducing its programs.
“We have to balance the budget and I don’t care how mad it makes someone if their pet program is curtailed or not,” Reagan said.
Ford’s strategists tried to make the point that the President was at a considerable disadvantage in the campaign: Reagan combed the hustings for three weeks while the President was only able to spare three days. “He (Reagan) gave it his best shot,” said Ron Nessen, “and he still couldn’t win.” Even so the outcome was uncomfortably close for Ford and at the assessment meeting following the vote Ford’s campaign manager admitted that the President will be urged to spend more time campaigning in future primaries.
If the race didn’t do much to clear the field for either Republican it did narrow the Democratic pack of hopefuls considerably. As expected, 43-year-old conservative former Georgia governor. Jimmy Carter, led the nine other Demo-
cratic candidates with 30% of the vote. Arizona congressman Morris Udall came second with 24%, establishing himself as the leader of the Democrats’ liberal wing. The clear loser was Sargent Shriver. Unable to dredge up any vestige of the halcyon Kennedy era, he spoke in near-empty auditoriums and his final standing (fifth with only 9% of the Democratic vote) probably means that he will leave the race even be-
fore the New England primaries are over.
The Democrats’ two conservative heavyweights didn’t even enter the race. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Alabama’s George Wallace were too busy opposing school busing in Boston to bother with a primary race whose only real importance is eliminating the weakest contenders. Both men have more than enough funds to get them to the convention and neither is dependent on the few votes the state is given at the nominating convention. Hubert Humphrey also turned down the New Hampshire race and even asked voters not to write in his name on the ballots. Nevertheless, 6% of the electorate did, leaving the possibility of a draft-Humphrey movement very much alive. That is what President Ford has forecast all along. He told crowds in New Hampshire that in the end it will be Humphrey he will face and the issues that will decide the election will be inflation, unemployment and foreign pol-
icy. Perhaps. But Ford’s advisers have their eyes riveted to a much closer date: in the second week of March the President will meet Ronald Reagan again in the conservative state of Florida and a week later in the Illinois primary. Reagan knows he must win in at least one of those runoffs to stay in contention. WILLIAM LOWTHER
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