Republican Party leaders concluded their semiannual meeting here today, having successfully kept at arm's length the potentially bruising 1980 GOP presidential race.
Instead, the state party chairmen and Republican National Committee members forced themselves to focus on something they consider more basic to the party's survival: local organizing, state legislative races and the 1981 redistricting battle, which, if flubbed by the Republicans, could nullify the party's increasing success in state races.
"It would be nice to win the presidency and the U.S. Senate," said Norman L. Turnette, the party's director of campaign operations, "but it will all go down the drain if we don't watch ourselves with reapportionment."
"If we're going to rebuild and restore our party, we've got to do it from the bottom up," said RNC Chairman Bill Brock, who carefully guided this week's meeting to avoid preoccupation with the 1980 presidential race or involvement in procedural controversies that could have divided the group along candidate loyalty lines.
The party's concern stems from a hard look at numbers. Despite a series of state triumphs in 1978, Republicans now control the crucial reapportionment process in only 14 states. In five additional states, the GOP exercises some control. The rest, unless substantial changes come about in 1980, are likely to be guided by Democrats, who can help ensure Democratic dominance in local elections for the next decade through manipulation of redistricting.
In addition, the GOP has what party strategist Ben Cotton acknowledged were only "paper organizations" in many local areas, with no roots, little money and little hope of putting up even modest efforts against entrenched Democrats.
There was even a light bulb joke circulating here about past Republican habits: It takes two Republicans to change a bulb - one to screw it in and the other to kick the chair out from under him.
Brock and other party leaders said they are determined to prevent party resources from being overly devoted to the presidential race so that a maximum effort can be made in state and local contests.
"In 1972," Brock said, "every single resource, every fund raised, every ounce of energy we had, was subsumed in the presidential race. That didn't leave a whole lot for the rest. . . . Bob Haldeman told me that if the candidate [Richard Nixon] got 60 percent of the vote, all the rest would be taken care of. Well, it didn't work."
Party professionals met in Minnesota because in the past three years Republicans have taken over its governor's mansion, both Senate and two congressional seats and made major gains in the state legislature. Minnesota was cited throughout the meeting as an example of what Republicans can do under the right circumstances.
The GOP has planned an elaborate appeal to urban and ethnic voters in 1980 and has hired several full-time staffers to work in that area.The party also is developing a complicated, computerized simulation technique to advise GOP state legislators on the most advantageous redistricting configurations.
As a result, presidential campaign activities here were peripheral. The party seemed only to tolerate the presence of several major candidates and operatives for all of the candidates.
The party made the full committee membership available only once for speeches - five minute pitches Saturday night in what one campaign aide called a "cattle show" following two hours of dinner, cocktails and live entertainment.
The candidates and their aides, in turn, seemed to place low priority on the gathering. Though Sens. Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.), and Bob Dole (Kansas) and George Bush made appearances here, only Bush, among the "majors," stuck around for Saturday's "candidates' night."
It was clear from interviews here that the GOP is one group that overwhelmingly favors Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. "We may be the only one left that does," said Brock. "He is the greatest asset we've had in 50 years." CAPTION: Picture, One of the few candidates to attend the Republican meeting, Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., moves through the crowd. UPI