John B. Connally had blood on his fingers from shaking hands so much. He was signing autographs on $1, $5 and $20 bills bearing his signature as secretary of the Treasury.
He had just brought more than 300 people to cheers in the airport firehouse with his assertive and commanding call for an American return to undisputed world leadership. Hours later he would do the same with 2,500 people in his hometown of Houston in a rousing conclusion to his remarkable sever-day campaign tour through 22 Texas cities.
By any standrad, Connally's trip, his first campaigning in Texas in 13 years, was a surprising success.
Since he last campaigned for himself in Texas, Connally had switched parties from Democratic to Republican, had been indicted and acquitted in a milk price-fixing investigation, and had served in the Nixon administration. Nevertheless, he still showed the Connally appeal, even greater than he, his staff and other observers had expected.
He drew overflow crowds in such places as Dallas, Fort Worth and Beaumont a full 21 months before the 1980 presidential election, an apparent measure of the disenchantment in Texas with President Carter, who won 26 of his 57-vote electoral margin here.
He drew perhaps more Democrats than Republicans, rank and file voters and party establishment as well, an indication of the erosion of Ronald Reagan's support in a state where conservative Democratic crossovers gave him a whopping and crucial primary election victory over President Ford in 1976.
And he campaigned on time and without hitches, a reflection of the tough, professional campaign staff Connally has put together.
All told, the former Democratic Texas governor, now campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, showed formidable strength in the state, which will probably have one of the most crucial primaties of the 1980 campaign.
The 25,000 people who paid $10 and $25 to see him at breakfasts, launches and dinners are Connally's hopes for the nucleus of a statewide organization.
"People are concerned about what's happening all over the country," Connally says of the crowds that exceeded even his expectations. In Corpus Christi he invited the "wallflowers," those who didn't get lunch for lack of table space, to the White House for lunch.
"They're concerned, they're worried and they want to do something."
And the Connally answer to that is, "Leadership for America." That's what it says on his campaign materials, not the word president, not even the word Republican, a word he screcely mentioned in this overwhelmingly Democratic state.
Connally's Texas tour was an early effort to solidify his strength in his home state, to thank his supporters before he begins campaigning nationwide. Put together in three weeks, it was timed to his wife Nellie's 60th biethday, and his 62nd last Tuesday.
"You never take your home folks for granted," he said in a brief interview.
At each of the 22 localities he visited, there was a Republican chairman for the event and, by dint of political realities, a Democratic cochairman. In McAllen, Connally played to a cousin of Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen (D-Tex.) and in Dallas to former, state Republican chairman Ray Hutchison.
Former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes, a staunch Democrat, tured out 3,500 for Connally in Brownwood, more than 10 percent of the town's population.
Even former Reagan leaders turned out in some communities to support Connally.
Overwhelmingly, the crowds were white, middle-aged and middle-to-upper--class. Some snickered in Houston when he mentioned the NAACP, and in the crowd, said one lifelong Houstonian, were 10 of the 50 richest people in the country.
In Connally's birthplace, Floresville, he told a hometown courthouse square crowd: "I know that there are injustices and I know that there are inequalities in America today, and there always are going to be. And I know that we're all not equal, and we never will be because God didn't make us that way, and His guiding hand still determines the destiny of this nation."
A few blacks and a few Hispanics showed up for his rallies.
But whatever the composition of the crowds, they loved Connally and his message: that he is the leader who can make America work at home and lead abroad. Make it work by getting the federal government out of our lives and out of our business, make it lead by not sending signals of weakness while the Soviet Union asserts strength.
His views on energy, agriculture and foreign trade, basic underpinnings of the Texas and national economies, brought whoops of approval and prolonged applause.
He called for a removal of price controls on oil and natural gas, and he made fun of Carter's fireside energy chat. Connally repeatedly hunkered down, pulling his lapels together to mimic the president in a sweater, and attacked Carter for an energy policy of "sharing shortages."
"What kind of policy is that for America?" Connally asked. "There is no shortage of resources in America, threr is a shortage of good judgment in Washington."
Other nations' trade policies, including those of U.S. allies, hurt American farmers, he told his crowds. And in a reference to Japan he brought cheers when he said:
"If they don't want our $5 [a pound] beef and if they don't want our [Rio Grande] Balley citrus, then let 'em eat mandarin oranges and keep their cars parked in the streets adn keep their televisions because they're not going to send them over here."
And when the applause died down from that, Connally said, "We believe in free trade, but first there must be fair trade," and there was more applause.
It was a basic speech, including attacks on federal deficit spending as the cause of inflation and on the seeming impotence of the United States abroad. It was repeated in 22 cities and at 19 news conferences, and the coverage of his tour was extensive.
He said he is undecided on which primaries to commit his time and money to, but that New Hampshire was probable, and New York, as of now, looks too costly to enter a popularity contest that earns no convention delegates.