Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton all but endorsed Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination today, citing polls suggesting the former president would be a stronger opponent for Jimmy Carter in the November election than GOP frontrunner Ronald Reagan.
Although Dalton stopped short of a statement of outright support, he said he would meet Thursday with Vermont Gov. Richard Snelling, a leader of the Draft Ford Movement, several other as yet uncommitted GOP governors and Stuart Spencer, a top strategist in Ford's 1976 campaign. Dalton said the subject of the meeting would be prospects for a Ford candidacy.
A Ford supporter in the former president's successful nomination struggle with Reagan four years ago, Dalton noted a recent Louis Harris poll that he said showed Ford beating Carter by 54 to 44 percent while Carter defeated Reagan 58 to 40 percent.
"I can't help but think there are a lot of delegates [to the Republican convention in July] watching polls of this nature," said Dalton.
Dalton's words of encouragement and the confirmation of Thursday's Republican governors meeting are likely to provide further momentum to the already fast-moving effort to bring Ford formally into the race. But they may have more impact nationality than in Virginia, where a majority of Republicans are believed to support the conservative former California governor.
Reagan won 35 to 51 Virginia delegates to the Republican convention four years ago, despite the fact that both then-governor Mills E. Goodwin Jr. and then-lieutenant governor Dalton backed Ford. This year, Reagan has already won endorsements from GOP state chairman Alfred Cramer, 1st Congressional District Rep. Paul Trible and Helen Obenshain, widow of the late GOP senatorial candidate.
"Up until New Hampshire, support for Reagan here was extremely soft," said Judy Peachee, Virginia's GOP national committeewoman, who four years ago helped lead the Reagan effort here. "But with his victories in New Hampshire. . . and now South Carolina, it has jelled, and as best as I can tell, it's as strong as it was four years ago."
Peachee, who said she would decide this week whom to support, added that she did not believe a Dalton endorsement of Ford would sway most Virginia Republicans. "I'm just guessing, but I'd say Republicans in this state are free spirits," she said. "They'll probably go ahead and make up their own minds."
Virginia GOP strategist William A. Royall Jr., Ford's 1976 Virginia manager, agreed with Peachee.
"If an incumbent governor and a U.S. senator go the other way [against Reagan], it could have an impact, said Royall, referring to GOP Sen. John W. Warner, who has also yet to commit himself to a Republican presidential candidate. "But their [the Virginia Republicans] hearts and minds are for Reagan, whether they're tied down yet or not."
Dalton said he had been on the telephone every day during the last week with Republicans discussing Ford's chances. He would not directly state whether he thought Ford could catch the former California governor, but noted that "four years ago at this time, I believe Reagan had more delegates," yet Ford won the nomination. Dalton said he had not talked to Ford in the last three months.
"I want to see somebody [nominated] who will see to it that we don't have four more years of Jimmy Carter," said Dalton. Virginia was the only southern state that Carter, a former Georgia governor, failed to carry four years ago in his race against Ford.
But one top Republican state official yesterday expressed skepticism about Ford's electability based on the Harris poll. "Look at Ted Kennedy, what he was doing in the polls before he announced," said the official who asked not to be named. "Once, he became an active candidate, he took a nose dive. The same thing could happen to Ford."
Ford may also get a boost in Virginia from Godwin, who until last week was an ardent supporter of former Texas governor John B. Connally. Now that Connally has withdrawn, many observers expect Godwin to more to the Ford camp. The former Virginia governor was not available for comment today but Dalton spokesman Paul G. Edwards said his boss and Godwin had not discussed a possible Ford candidacy.
Dalton predicted that Reagan, who won the South Carolina primary over the weekend, would go on to sweep the upcoming southern primaries in Florida, Alabama and Georgia. And he made a point of noting that he would support Reagan should the former governor be nominated.
Peachee and Royall agreed that a Ford candidacy at this time would most damage GOP contender George Bush in Virginia.
"I'm not sure this (non-Reagan) portion of the party in Virginia can sustain both Ford's and Bush's candidacies," said Royall. "Ford's entry would certainly help Reagan here, at least until Bush goes out."