Ronald Reagan won the Florida Republican Convention straw vote today, beating his most active rival in the state, John B. Connally, by a 4-to-3 ratio.
Reagan bested Connally, 483 to 354, with George Bush a close third and Rep. Philip M. Crane of Illinois foruth.
The result came close to matching the preconvention predictions of the Reagan camp and disappointed Connally and his backers. It also gave Bush another victory over Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, who canceled a scheduled appearance here at the the last minute an finished fifth.
The tally of first-choice preferences among the 1,326 voting delegates was: Reagan, 483 or 36.4 percent; Connally, 354 or 26.6 percent; Bush, 280 or 21.1 percent, and Crane, 183 or 13.8 percent.
Twenty-six votes were scattered among the five other candidates.
In the separate voting for second choice for president, Crane led with 461 votes, followed by Bush, Connally and Reagan. Voters were barred from selecting the same man as their first and second choice.
Connally conceded that "we didn't come quite as close as I though we might, but we built a good organization. If anyone is going to stip Reagan, it's still going to be me."
Eddie Mahe, Connaly's campaign manager, said, "The Reagan vote held solid. We were never able to touch it."
Connally had invested heavily in time and money in hopes of derailing Reagan in this preliminary test in a state whose March 11 primary is the focus of Connally's southern stragegy.
Today's straw vote has no effect on the selection of national convention delegates in that primary, but it was viewed as an important psychological test by the Connally and Reagan camps.
Both worked hard to turn out supporters at the county caucuses where 80 percent of today's delegates were chosen by lottery. The other 20 percent comprised party officials and their designees, many of them long-time Reagan supporters.
Early this fall, Reagan and his backers had claimed a 2-to-1 lead over Connally, but more recently they have been predicting the former California governer would win by an 8-to-10-point margin, which is what he got.
As recently as Friday, Mahe was predicting the margin would be 3-to-5 points and that Connolly would come within 50 votes of Reagan's total.
But the reception to the candidate speeches during the afternoon forecast the size of the Reagan win. He and almost all the others vied in critizing the Carter administration's "weakness" in foreign policy.
As much as the result disappointed Connally's hopes, it blostered the backers of third-place finisher Bush. Bush has concentrated on preparing for the early 1980 contests in New England and Iowa, and had been expected to trail all three conservatives -- Reagan, Connally, and Crane -- here in Florida.
Instead, he ran within 74 votes of Connally as the first choice and beat Connally by 182 votes on the second-choice ballots. Dean Burch, the former Republican national chairman who introduced Bush here, said his camp was "tickled to death" by the results. w"It clearly puts him in the top three," Burch said.
Three senators who are also in the race showed little stength here. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Baker had nine first-place votes apiece, and Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota had six.
In Des Moines, Iowa, en route home to California after a week of campaigning, Reagan said he was "very pleased" with the Florida results. He agreed with a reporter's observation that it gave him a "psychological boost" for the upcoming Florida primary.
Earlier in the week, at a New York City news conference. Reagan had said that the Florida straw poll was "Meaningless," and he essentially agreed with that position today.
"It's meaningless in the sense of having any bearing on the primary," Reagan said. ". . . it wasn't a scientific poll -- it was kind of a lottery but even so, it's always nice to win."
Iowa Gov. Bob Ray, A GOP moderate who has yet to endorse any presidential candidate, said that Reagan was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in Iowa and throughout the nation.
Although Reagan had drawn criticism from some Florida Republicans for doing all that he could in advance to diminish the importance of the straw vote, his arrival at the convention hall set off a huge demonstration Reagan, completing his announcement week national tour, stayed in Orlando just long enough to make his speech. But his reception was reminiscent of past triumphs, and his speech, though shorter than those his rivals delivered and marred somewhat by hoarsensess, was interrupted by frequent bursts of applause and three standing ovations.
The emotional peak came -- as it has elsewhere for him this week -- when Reagan promised that he would make America so respected in the world "that never again will a dictator dare to invade our embassy and hold our people captive."
Connally, who followed Reagan to the platform, hit the same note in almost the same words -- and with equal effect. "Never again," he shouted, "do we want to see America and American citizens humiliated, blindfolded, handcuffed and held captive, nor do we want to see the Stars and Stripes burned by a foreign mob."
Dole, who was the next speaker, adopted a less oratorical tone, dwelling instead on his experience in the Senate and his role as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1976. But he hit the prevailing theme -- and drew one of his loudest cheers -- when he said, "We are supposed to be a great nation. What's wrong with acting like one?"
Crane, whose Florida backers had been instrumental in promoting the straw vote, was the fourth speaker, and delivered a stemwinder accusing the Democrats of "putting their faith in government, not God." Predicting that the GOP "is on the verge of becoming the new majority party," Crane urged Republicans to preach the "self-evident truth that government does nothing well."
After delegates listened politely to two long shots, Pressler and Harold Stassen, Bush closed the speaking with a rectial of his career and policy views that showed how much the past year's campaigning has improved his speech delivery.
His strongest applause came when he criticized Carter's human rights policy as one that has made the mistake of "slapping around Argentina and Brazil and condoning Castro."
Bush had won the first two state convention straw votes of the fall, winning Iowa over Connally, Dole, Reagan, Baker and Crane, in that order, and then upsetting Baker in Maine, with Connally, Reagan and Crane trailing.