"Jerry who?" said Sen. Bob Dole.
Jerry Ford, that's who, the you-can-have-me-if-want-me presidential candidate who some might say unofficially opened his campaign at the Washington Hilton last night.
"Carter must go," said Ford, golf-course tanned and 10 pounds lighter. "I will go anywhere, do anything in my power, and work with all my strength to elect a Republican president and elect a Republican Congress in 1980."
The slightly fewer than 1,000 Republicans collected at the annual Senate and House GOP fund-raising dinner gave him a standing ovation. Frequently interrupted by applause, the tough speech against the current administration struck out harshly at Carter's basic policies.
"His economic program has been a disaster," Ford said. "His energy policies have been misguided and ineffective. His foreign policies have been contradictory, erratic and downright dangerous."
Audience reaction to Ford's speech was highly favorable, with words like "strong" and "powerful" and "the right speech at the right time" being exchanged by guests as they filed out. But the praise seemed more for the speech than the man, and while last night's crowd was appreciative, it did not appear overwhelmed. And there was no clear evidence that the political professionals in the crowd were jumping on any bandwagon until they saw it moving.
"It was a hard-hitting attack," said first-term Rep. Arlen Erdahl (R-Minn.). "I think he sounded like a candidate.
"We Republicans are finding out that it's more fun to win than to lose. We have several good issues and several good candidates who can beat Carter, and I think Ford is one of them. But that's his decision."
"I have no present plan to endorse anybody," said Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, recently a candidate him self. Asked if he had any advice for Ford, Baker added, "I think I had enough trouble deciding what I should do."
"I'm totally neutral," said Sen. John Warner of Virginia, and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, interjected, "I'm just interested in listening." One Republican who had an opinion for Ford was Sen. James McLure of Idaho. "I don't think [Ford's declaring himself a candidate] is a useful thing thing for him to do," he said. "The only way for him to get there is if there's a deadlock at the convention."
Another one-time candidate, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, was asked when he would officially declare himself out of the running. "I promised in January I'd do it in Kansas," Dole said, "and I'm going home this weekend."
Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, where next week's Republican battle seems more and more crucial, was asked if he was interested in Ford as a candidate. "I'm always interested in him," Percy commented, but added quickly, "I'm uncommitted."
Earlier, some Republicans had been highly responsive to the former president.
"I just want to let you know that I love you," television actress Linda Day George told Ford at a private reception before the speech.
Members of Congress seemed to have a less romantic attitude. Benign neutrality was rampant, although presidential unhopeful Dole gave away at least one red, white and blue button that read: "What America Needs America Had! Jerry Ford."
"I think he'll be a very popular candidate," Dole said, explaining he had talked to Ford several times on the phone recently. "I told him he had to be realistc -- I don't know if the numbers are there for him."
The tone of the evening recalled the period when America did, in fact, have Jerry Ford. Secret Service men flanked him as he marched in to mild applause and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Earlier, they had guarded the secluded room off the International Ballroom where he waited to make his grand entrance.
And when he had arrived at the private reception at about 5:45 p.m., the small Hilton cocktail room full of Republican power-brokers began buzzing.
"Everyone just turned around and said, 'He's here, he's here,'" said Christopher George, the actor and 1976 Ford supporter whose most recent movie is called "Exterminator."
Ford attracted a steady stream of well-wishers at the reception. "He looks marvelous," said Joy Baker, wife of Howard.
Other guests at the reception included assorted industrial barons as well as Brent Scowcroft, former head of the National Security Council, and Alan Greenspan, chairman of Ford's Council of Economic Advisers.
Greenspan, who's playing golf with Ford in Rancho Mirage, Calif., this weekend, said he hadn't advised the former president to enter the race. "There are certain types of decisions nobody should give advice on," said Greespan. "You know -- 'Should I marry Jane?'"
But others, if not advising Ford to enter the race, certainly made their presence known. "We had a little conversation," said Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), once head of John Connally's efforts in that state. "With Connally down the chute, we've got about 25 delegates that ought to go somewhere. I told him [Ford] we're just going to keep our powder dry and see how things shake out."
The mood of the Republican crowd was subdued and well-behaved. Lights dimmed during dinner and soft organ music bubbled in the background, almost sounding like a memorial service for fallen primary candidates. Some, like Baker, were present, eating their filet mignon washed down by Clement Colombet Burgundy.
After the souffle au Grand Marnier and brandied peaches flambe had been whisked away, the Republican members of the House and Senate were introduced. It was a process that took a scant 22 minutes. Former President Ford's speech took only a little longer.
The official part of the evening ended, in a departure from the usual Republican efficiency, 35 minutes off schedule at 10:40 p.m. For the wild of heart, there was dancing on into the night, almost until 11.