Throwing open the door to a possible presidential candidacy, Gerald R. Ford said today that he would take "a serious look" at an evaluation of his political chances now being made by supporters in Washington.
"In deference to their interest and their long support, I definitely will take a serious look at what they have to recommend," the former president said in a telephone interview from his Palm Springs office.
Ford intimates, most of whom want him in the 1980 race, held a series of meetings last week in Washington to discuss a prospective candidacy. Almost all of these supporters -- except for James Baker, who managed Ford's 1976 general election campaign but is now working for another GOP White House hopeful, fellow Texan George Bush -- have avoided involvement in other campaigns so that they can assist Ford if he decides to run.
In his interview today, Ford did nothing to discourage his supporters.
While saying once more that he had reached no decision on 1980, Ford observed that he had been under increasing pressure to get into the race.
"We'll continue to look at the situation," Ford said. "If there is a genuine interest in a broad sense and some momentum in a significant way, then we'll obviously reassess the situation."
The former president said he knew very little about a "draft Ford" movement that sprang up last week in New Hampshire, where the nation's first presidential primary will be held Feb. 26. He said, however, that he would "take a look at it" when he received official word of the movement's formation.
"We seem to be doing better not being a candidate," Ford added. "If that's the case, why change the strategy?"
The New Hampshire Primary Committee to Draft President Ford was spurred by a Boston Globe Poll that showed Ford leading presumed Republican frontrunner Ronald Reagan, 38 to 34 percent, in the state. The same poll shows Reagan swamping all GOP rivals with Ford out of the race.
Reagan strategists, whose polls also show Ford running closer to Reagan than any other Republican, understandably would like the former president to stay out of the race. One longtime Reagan associate said privately last week that "Ford has at least as much chance of hurting Reagan this time as the governor [Reagen] hurt him in 1976."
Ford and his backers have said frequently that Reagan's hard-driving 1976 challenge for the GOP nomination cost Ford the White House.
Robert Teeter, a respected Detroit pollster who has left himself free for a Ford candidacy, believes that the expected entrance of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the Democratic presidential race also boosts Ford's chances.
Most polls show Ford running slightly better against Kennedy than does Reagan, who many consider a stronger candidate against President Carter than against the Massachusetts senator.
In his interview today, Ford said that he considered Kennedy's entrance into the race "almost a foregone conclusion." He predicted that Kennedy would be more politically vulnerable than he now appears once he becomes an announced candidate.
Except for Baker and former White House chief of staff Richard Cheney, now a congressman from Wyoming, Ford would have his 1976 campaign team intact should he decide to run. This includes Teeter, campaign managers Doug Bailey and John Deardourff, political strategist Stu Spencer and Washington attorney Jack Marsh.
Last week Spencer was in Washington presiding at the evaluation meetings, while Bailey and Deardourff were in Palm Springs assisting Ford with upcoming speeches on defense policy.
Spencer, who argues that it will be difficult for anyone to head off Reagan unless Ford runs, said the former president now faces "30 days of soul-searching" to decide what he's going to do. Spencer believes Ford will have to make up his mind by Nov. 1, if he is to mount an effective campaign.
But while Ford agreed that he must make a "practical decision" soon to allow him to comply with the complex requirements of federal campaign law, he declined to set himself a deadline.
"The longer we put it off, the better the political environment looks," Ford said. "I don't have to campaign right now, or raise money. I have the best of both worlds."
Ford said that, from the point of view of health, that he and his wife Betty, were in "great, great shape." But he politely declined, with a chuckle to say whether Betty Ford wanted him to run again.
"That's a family secret," Ford said.