John B. Connally, looking like a president, glides over the oriental carpeting of the Hillcrest Country Club and, sounding like a president, talks of America's ideals and its destinies.
He has just been introduced to the Republicans assembled around him by his wife of Rep. Steve Symms (R-Idaho) as "the man who I think should be the next president of the United States." The crowd is so caught up with him that finally one man can wait no longer.
"When," he asks, "are you going to announce for president?"
So went Connally's 147th political appearance in the past 12 months. After it was over, he slipped out into the bracing Idaho night, walking hand-in-hand with his wife Nellie, the person he says will help him decide not, when but whether he will seek the presidency.
He and Nellie were on their way to No. 148, a trotuously long joint appearance of Idaho Republican candidates during which Connally, a former Democrat, exhorted the faithful Republicans, to take up as their battle cry of 1978, "Defeat Democrats!"
"That's what we need - more convets," says Idaho Republican chairman Dennis Olsen.
Discounted, discredited and dismissed by some in his own party, including some in leadership roles, Connally remains undeterred. He is a man tempted to ride presidential style and goverment experience right into the office itself, to provide his consertive answers to what he sees as the nation's most pressing questions.
For just as he can command a crowd's attention like a president, Connally thinks he could be president and thinks he could be a good one.
"You have to evaluate what you think you can do in relation to what you think others can do," he says of how he is going to decide whether to seek the White House.
Does he think he can do better than all the others?
Other will say it. "I'm for Connally," says a Fort Wayne, Ind, Republican activist and former state officeholder at a reception for another possible GOP contender, George Bush. "John Connally has talent coming out of his ears."
"He's colorful, articulate, intelligent," adds Idaho's Olsen. "I could be enthusiastic with him as a candidate."
So, sometimes between election day Nov.7 and New Year's Day, Connally - former governor of Texas - syas he will decide whether he will try to become president. If so, and it is hard to believe it won't be so, he says he will announce early next year.
"If I'm going to do it," Connally says, "I'm going to get after it. I'm going to devote the next two years of my life to do it."
That could make Connally, whose name has been nationally known since Nov.22, 1963, perhaps the strongest challenger to former California governor Ronald Reagan for the 1969 Republican presidential somination. Reagan, whose formal candidacy is almost at hand, is generally considered the frontrunner among Republican presidential propects - a difficult place to keep over the long haul of dozens of primary elections.
Such is the jockeying for 1980 as this year's campaigns draw to a close.
If he runs, Connally may have to try to win the nomination despite the hardcore Republican Party figures who think he is an unacceptable candidate because of his bribery indictment (a jury acquitted him), his conversion from Democrat to Republican (1973) and his Texas wheeler-dealer image (he won $6.87 playing gin on a fight from Los Angeles to Seattle the other day).
"Obviously," Connally said, "I have to go in for the primaries, enter all these primaries, file slates in non-primary states and just be prepared to conduct a campaign in enough states with the delegates strength to win the nomination. The primaries are going to do it."
"The "if is the nomination," a confident Connally itimate says. "There is no question he can win the election. He is electable. The question is whether he is acceptable " to Republicans.
Connally says he is prepared to deal with issues that other candidates (including Reagan) and the media consider his liabilities.
On being indicted: "It depends on how it comes up. I can use levity that I am the only certified, proven not guilty candidate in either party. If it gets nasty then I'll say, "Fine - you have any facts that weren't disclosed? Can you prove anything out of court that couldn't be proved in court?'"
On party-switching: "Reagan's a party-switcher, too. It's just a question of who did it first. Churchill said, 'Some men change their principles for their party, others change their party for the principles.'"
On wheeling and dealing: "I'm not sure I know how to handle the wheeler-dealer-Texan image. I'm not sure it means anything."
But what Connally would rather do is press what would be the theme of any Connally candidacy, that Connally can make the American system work. "People want answers," he said. "People thing the system is not working. I understand private business and I understand government. I can make it work."
If his appearances on behalf of others are any signs, Connally would also wage a heavily anti-Democratic controlled-Congress campaign, criticizing the party that has been the majority in the national legislature for 42 of the past 43 years.
In Los Angeles, Merced an Visalia, Calif, in Seattle, Boise and wherever he goes, Conally attacks spending, deficits, inflation, the regulatory instrusions into life - what he considers the bitter fruits of nearly a half-century of Democratic legislation. He recites all the things that Congress has given to everyone in the nation, everyone except members of Congress such as civil rights legislation, equal employment legislation, worker safety legislation and Social Security taxes.
"Everything he said is what we all wanted to hear," observes Ralph Warford a Seattle home-builder who gives his money and time to Republican candidates. "He's a very inpressive man."
This message is carried to people like Warford, who saw Connally at the $100s-sandwich lunch for congressional candidate John Nance Garner in Seattle, thanks to the "John Connally Citizens Forum." This political action committee, based in Connally's hometown of Houston, has raised nearly $450,000 as far from board-room executives whose interests and other businesses.
It is the Citizen Forum, with a staff of seven, that has financed Connally's travels to 39 states to speak on behalf of Republican candidates since the fall of last year. "What is today?" asks Connally as his chartered Learjet sors ovet the rugged terrain of California, another leg on a trip through Nevada, California, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Colorado.
Still to come are more appearances in Texas for candidates there as well as more out-of-state trips.
"It's gruelling schedule, especially since we took August off," says R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Citizens Forum, referring to Connally's travels.
It is so gruelling that it gives perhaps a deeper meaning to Connally's remark here at the Hillcrest Country Club the other night, an off-hand statement of a speaker who would not let his remaining 4 minutes pass in silence. "I," said John B. Connally, "don't like to waste time."