It was about 10 p.m. when the Howard Baker man walked into his Washington home and it was about two minutes after that when his friend, the George Bush man, telephoned.
"I just want to thank you guys for hauling 50 national correspondents up to Maine," said the Bush man to the Baker man.
"Oh, I'm glad you liked that," the Baker man replied, laughing -- and it was immediately clear that the Baker man, who had been out to dinner had not heard the news from Maine.
"You haven't heard?" said the Bush aide, trying to be gentle."George Bush won." Then here was a pause, which was understandable because the Baker camp thought it had the Maine Republican forum straw vote wrapped and tied. The straw vote was to have been the centerpiece of Sen. Howard H. Baker's presidential campaign kickoff last week.
"What?" said the Baker man at last, and then, "You're kidding." And finally: "I'm astonished."
All the political people were astonished.The Baker people, the Bush people, the Connally people, the Reagan people and the other people knew the Baker has Sen. William Conhen (R-Maine) and his organization working for him, and so they figured he also had the straw vote in Maine.It was the conventional wisdom throughout Portland Saturday, lacking only, once the votes were counted, in accuracy.
The Maine vote officially decided nothing, as far as apportioning delegates to presidential candidates for the Republican National Convention next summer. But in the Republican Party it caused a great deal of conversation and some consternation, and it may produce some strategic reassessments.
Baker's campaign strategists intend to meet this afternoon to review how it was that they got off to a less-than roaring start and what they can do about it. Baker campaign press secretary Thomas Griscom says he does not expect any major shifts. "We're going to keep going with the plan we've got, and not back off at this," he said.
But the Baker camp and other Republicans were surprised that what is loosely called the moderate wing of the GOP captured almost 70 percent of the vote in Maine's straw poll. Bush got 35 percent and Baker 33 percent (he finished just 20 votes behind Bush), while John B. Connally received 18 percent, Ronald Reagan 7 percent and Rep. Philip M. Crane 5 percent.
There are some key explanations: Reagan's low vote perhaps can be attributed to the fact that he was the only GOP presidential hopeful who did not appear before the forum. Because he is far and away the frontrunner in the national polls. Reagan disdains all such early political cattle shows. Bush, because he has a summer home in Maine, might have been considered by some to be a local fellow.
But there are also some key lessons of presidential politicking in the Maine vote. They concern the strategies and prospects for Baker and Bush.
Advisers for both candidates have long figured that the Republicans eventually will come around to looking for a somewhat more moderate (and decidedly younger) alternative to Reagan. The Bush strategists have felt that what they must do first is knock Baker out of the race, finish ahead of him in Iowa's cacuses in the early primaries, and then try to pick up Baker's moderate votes to do battle with Reagan and the others.
Baker and his strategists, however, have maintained that the Tennessee Republican must concentrate on knocking off Reagan. It is an understandable position for Baker to have taken, because, as Senate minority leader, he is nationally known and was well ahead of Bush in the polls (he is second to Reagan, ahead of Connally and far ahead of Bush, who has yet to break into double-digit percent-ages in the polls).
But the vote in Maine showed that there were a number of Republicans who, apparently anxious for an alternative to Reagan, did not want Connally -- and given a choice between Bush and the moderate (and less strident) Baker, they opted for Bush.
While it produced not a single presidential delegate, the straw vote in Maine has produced an abundance of political gamesmanship.
Fearing a certain loss to Baker, Bush's political director, David Keene, recently contacted his counterpart in the Reagan camp. Charles Black, and proposed a political deal: Bush and Reagan could pull out of the Maine competition in an effort to minimize what they figured would be a public relations game by Baker. Keene confirms that he made the efforts but says that Black turned him down.
Now, in the wake of Bush's victory, Baker official are spreading the word to reporters that Reagan supporters at the GOP forum possibly decided to vote Bush because they were not going to win and were hoping to stop Baker -- a suggestion that offers a convenient devil theory to cushion the Baker defeat.
Reagan's chief campaign strategist, John Sears, is inclined to go along with this explanation, though he won't actually confirm it.
"In general, when you're not going to win, it is helpful to spread the votes where they will do the most good," he said.
The subject of what to do about George Bush will undoubtedly be discussed by the Baker strategists in today's meeting. But yesterday, in an apperance on "Issues and Answers" (ABC,WJLA), Baker held to the position that it is Reagan, not Bush, who concerns him.
"I did what I set out to do -- that is to head off the frontrunner," Baker said. He added: "While George won, I don't think I lost . . . . I got more votes than both John Connally and Ronald Reagan."
Baker had arrived in Portland aboard a jetliner accompained by 50 correspondents. Bush arrived by car, accompained by his daughter and one aide who drove with him from Boston. As Bush stepped out of his car in Portland, he was given a handwritten two-page assessment of what was in store for him at the convention.
It told him that Baker should wind up with from 40 to 50 percent "and will win," that Bush could finish anywhere from second to fourth and that "as many as 50 percent of the delegates are undecided -- so how we come out in the end will be determined by your performance."
Bush was the next to last speaker, and he left the hall immediately after talking to fly home to Houston for the weekend after 35 days on the trail. He saw no need to stay behind to comment on the results. Baker did, along with the correspondents who were covering him.