From all appearances, former president Gerald R. Ford is already campaigning this fall a 1980 return trip to the White House, touring the country, piling up political credits. But in Ford's case, appearances may be deceiving.
Ford has booked himself for 22 days of campaigning in 30 states - as vigorous a pace as any of the officially and unofficially announced Republican presidential hopefuls. He is full of hints, winks and teasing suggestions that he may join the field.
But three sets of facts say otherwise:
What Ford is doing for the Republican Party this fall is a way of life for him. It's no different from what he has done in every election year since he became minority leader of the House of Representatives in 1965.
Ford says - and virtually all his friends believe - that he has made no decision on 1980 and won't for many months.
Most of those in his inner circle believe that when the time comes, Ford will say "no" to another presidential campaign. And almost to a man, they hope that is his answer.
Ford himself tells questioners at every stop on his busy schedule that his stumping for local Republican candidates is unrelated to any possible 1980 aspirations of his own.
The reaction is undisguised skepticism. It is hard to accept by anyone who watches the former president, in a typical 30-hour slice of his autumn schedule, go through two television interviews and three press conferences, deliver four speeches, attend one luncheon, two dinners and three receptions, pose for uncounted pictures and sign innumerable autographs, and help raise a half-million dollars for Republican hopefuls in three different states.
Ford looks fit and tan, and when the sun catches his thin hair at the right angle, there is as much red-gold in it as there is gray. But he is 65 years old, and his left knee gets painfully stiff when he has been standing for any length of time - which his campaign activities require.
It is implausible on the face of it that he would be pushing himself this hard were not the goal of regaining the White House firmly in his mind.
But most of the people who know him best say otherwise.
Stuart Spencer, the California political pro who came in to direct the 1976 campaign, says Ford "doesn't want to run through the primaries again, and he's not Machiavellian enough to arrange for a deadlocked convention that might turn to him. So I don't think he's going to run. But I don't think he'll say that until he has to, because his whole leverage lies in the possiblity that he might run."
Former secretary of defense Melvin R. Laird has a somewhat different view. He says "Jerry is bitten with running again. I think it's a mistake, and I've told him that. But he thinks lightning can strike twice."
But most others are convinced that Ford cannot hope to inherit the presidency, as he did in 1974. As Dean Burch, former White House counselor and now Ford's lawyer, says, "The nomination won't come find him in Palm Springs. He'll have to go to Manchester, N.H., and a lot of other places to get it."
L. William Siedman, an old friend from Grand Rapids who was Ford's White House economic policy coordinator, stopped by to greet him at a $1,000 a-person reception here, and added this thought: "I don't see any great booming enthusiasm for his doing that - either from Ford or anyone else. Most people find the prospect of another Ford Carter race pretty unexciting."
The predictions of the Ford circle are colored by the wish - apparently almost universal - that the former president stay out of the 1980 race.
"I know of no one in his inner circle who is pushing him to run," says Robert Tecter, the Detroit pollster who is one of the Ford's most trusted advisers. "Most of them are hoping he won't run - and hoping he doesn't ask them what he should do."
Part of their feeling rests on their desire to preserve what Spencer calls "the beautiful life" Jerry and Betty Ford now enjoy in Palm Springs and Vail Colo.
Part of it is the fear that Ford's reputation might be damaged and his hopes smashed in the course of combat through more than 30 primaries. And part of it is the distaste even Reagan has decided to run, and many believe that fact, more than any other, is likely to provide the motivation that could pull Ford into the race.
When that theory was put to Ford, aboard the chartered jet that carried him from campaign stops in Detroit and State College, Pa., to here, he just laughed and said, "No, I'll make my own decision. I won't let Ron or anyone else make it for me."
Publicly, Ford likes to toy with the possibility of another campaign, like a child speculating about the contents of a fancily wrapped package under the Christmas tree.
At the press conference here, he said, grinning broadly, that another contest with Carter might be "real interesting. President Carter has reversed himself on so many positions he took in our last campaign, it might be fun to quote some of those lines back at him. I really have not thought about it."
More privately and less playfully, abroad the jet, Ford puffs his pipe and says, "It's nice to be in a position where I don't have any insatiable appetite to get to the White House. I've been there. It was a great experience. I really enjoyed it. But when it comes to running again, I'll only do it if I think it can be constructive . . . if it will help my party elect its best candidate."
The pleasure and pride Ford takes in his popularity as a former president and his acknowledged lack of "any insatiable appetite" for another presidential term are two more reasons why most of his intimates doubt that he will be a candidate again.
Were it not for what one of them calls "the Reagan factor," they would be more confident of their judgment. The general belief is that Ford does not want Reagan in the White House - in part because he blames Reagan's alleged "foot-dragging" in the general election for his own defeat in 1976.
How does Ford feel about Reagan? "I'll tell you what I said when we were together in Texas, campaigning close friends of Ford share with many other Republicans for another round of Republican civil war between Ford and his 1976 challenger, former California governor Ronald Reagan. The most recent Gallup Poll, taken in July, showed Ford leading Reagan, 37 to 31 percent, as the choice for the 1980 nomination.
That feeling is expressed even by Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, a fellow-Michigander and chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
Asked about Ford's using his 1978 campaign activities as a springboard into another presidential race, Vander Jagt says, "I think the Republican Party should look to the future and not to the past and should come up with a fresh new face. I think President Ford's place in history is secure and he will be remembered as a great president. If I were him, I would rest with that,"
And Vander Jagt adds: "I feel the same way about Reagan running."
But most Republicans assume that for Bill Clements [the Republican gubernatorial nominee].
He is all seriousness now, as he quotes his own words: "Gov. Reagan and I are personal friends and have been for a long time. We have mutual respects for each other. Obviously, we have had our differences and our disagreements over the years. But at this time we are united in our effort to help Republicans."
Was Ford impressed by Reagan's praise of his presidency at their joint appearance in Texas - a gesture described by some Reagan backers as the California's effort to end Ford's antagonism?
The pipe is going hard now, as Ford bites off his words. "You weren't there, were you?" Well, let me tell you. He did not do that at the breakfast in Houston. He did not do it at the airport rally in Dallas.
"He did it at the dinner. It was obviously a conscious, deliberate thing. I can't tell you why he decided, at the end of the day, to say what he did. But he really bent over backward. He said much more then about my presidency than he had ever said before."
Well, then, if Reagan does run in 1980?
"We have lots of time and lots of options," Ford says, "and what I'm doing now has nothing to do with that."
What Ford is doing is what politicians call "paying his dues." He is helping state party organizations and candidates raise funds, draw crowds and hammer home their capaign themes.
The routine is that of the practiced veteran. Charles Greenleaf, a Teeter assistant hired by Vander Jagt to aid ford in this campaign, gives him a briefing paper on each stop, with some background on the candidates, the prospects in the campaign and the issues.
Ford is a quick study, and in most places, he is dealing with familiar people and covering familiar gound.
In Detroit, he helped his old friend, Sen. Robert P. Griffin (R-Mich.), rebut a charge of absenteeism: "When I was in the White House, I'd often call Bob at home late in the evening, and, more often than not, Marge would tell me he was still in the office."
In State College, he told voters that GOP congressional candidate William administration." Clinger was general counsel of the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration - a post that normally does not attract much presidential attention.
Here is New York, forewarned that the question might come up, he told a press conference that a charge by Gov. Hugh Carey (D) that Perry Duryea, his Republican opponent, lobbied Ford against emergency federal aid for New York City is "a fabrication without foundation."
In return, Ford gathers praise and general good wishes from his hosts. Duryea said Ford "took over at a time when many people wondered if we could survive as a free society . . . and headed us down a path of world leadership again." Dinner chairman Donald Kendall asked the crowd: "Isn't it great to think about the good old days when Jerry Ford was president and inflation was only 4 percent'?'
Most of Ford's campaigning will be for moderate Republicans from states that would be likely to support him over Reagan in 1980 - as they did in the 1976 preconvention battles. The same is true of the $29,000 in contributions he has directed from his leftover 1976 campaign funds.
But all of those visited on this swing confirmed Ford's own statement that there are no 1980 quid proquos being asked in return for Ford's 1978 campaign assistance.
Indeed, Ford says, he is not even asking Republican office-seekers and officials to "hang loose" in their 1980 presidential commitments until he makes his own plans.
"The minute I would do that," he says, "it would compromise my position that I have not made a decision. I hope a lot of candidates get into the field. We ought to give the voters the broadest possible array of Republican talent for them to make a choice. That would be healthy."
Meanwhile, Ford is plugging away at two themes which might be heard again if he does decide to challenge Carter in 1980.
One is economic policy: "We had reduced inflation from 12 percent to 4.8 percent," he said here, "and now, because of their spending policies, it is back up to 11 percent. The inflation rate is the sole responsibility of the Carter administration and the Democratic Congress. They cannot duck that responsibility. They had it made and they've blown it."