Strategists for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan call it a "frontrunning campaign," but "frontwalking" would be a better description.
In the month since he became the 10th Republican to announce his presidential candidacy, Reagan's campaign calendar has slowed to one or two events a day. The pace is so leisurely that baggage call was listed as an "event" on the South Carolina schedule last week. The campaign is to come to a full stop for the next three weeks, which Reagan will spend at his Santa Barbara ranch or Pacific Palisades home, doing no campaigning.
"For all intents and purposes, the real canpaign begins in January," says Reagan press secretary Jim Lake. "There's just not that much public interest in it now."
The lack of interest is just fine with the Reagan camp. The former California governor is starting with a wide lead in the polls over Republican rivals, and his managers would like the GOP primaries decided on the basis of current perceptions rather than exposing the candidate to the tugs and pulls of a genuine campaign. The Iran crisis probably has been helpful in this regard, because, as Reagan campaign manager John P. Sears observes, "It kind of freezes things where they are."
In its early stages, the Reagan campaign has reminded some persons of the carefully controlled performance by Richard M. Nixon during the general election of 1968, in which Sears played an important management role. In that campaign, Nixon gave the appearence of motion while his opponent, the late Hubert H. Humphrey, flailed away on a 16-hour-a-day schedule. The campaigns tended to advertise Humphrey's weaknesses and conceal Nixon's.
But the analogy is far from perfect. Reagan does not express the personal hostility toward the press or his political opponents that led to the shielding of Nixon. And Nixon was ducking a debate with his Democratic opponent, while Reagan says repeatedly that he looks forward to debates with the Democratic nominee. Reagan is trying to avoid a political threefront war in which John Connally, Howard H. Baker Jr. and George Bush could concentrate their fire on the frontrunner at joint appearances.
Nonetheless, the basic thrust of Reagan's strategy, like Nixon's has been to limit the candidates's appearances and as much as possible to restrict their content to well-rehearsed generalities, reducing the possibility of mishaps.
Nixon talked and acted as if he were president long before he held the office. Reagan already is behaving as if he were the Republican presidential nominee.
When Reagan returns to the campaign trail Jan. 7, he will have been an announced presidential candidate for 55 days. Of this time, only 13 days will have been spent in campaigning, including two days in which the candidate flew and made no speeches. In contrast, candidates Connallly and Bush have campaigned four or five days a week for the last several months.
The public part of a typical Reagan campaign day starts late in the morning or at noon, giving the 68-year-old candidate plenty of rest. Since he declared his candidacy Nov. 13, Reagan has visited 17 states and made 20 speeches -- about as many as his more active opponents make in a week and a half. He also has attended 14 Republican receptions, nine of them closed to the press.
Reagan has held five news conferences and eight "press availabilities," which are catch-as-catch-can affairs of a few minutes at plane side or in hotel lobbies. He has made himself available brief interviews on his chartered campaign plane to the handful of news organizations regularly covering him, and he has given a number of local interviews.
Usually, Reagan says little in these interviews that he has not already said in his basic speech. He often uses the precise language of that speech in responding to questions. Except for advocating asylum in the United States, if requested, for the deposed shah of Iran, Reagan has mostly avoided commenting on topical issues.
The only two "new" proposals that Reagan has made were contained in his announcement speech, and one of them -- statehood for Puerto Rico -- has not been repeated. The other is a vague, repeated call for a "North American accord" among the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Because the essence of this proposal is that leaders of Canada and Mexico should advance their own plans for hemispheric cooperation, it does not lend itself to development in the political campaign.
Ed Meese, Reagan's traveling policy adviser, says that the basic ideas of Reagan's speech -- increased defense spending, reduced federal income taxes, return of the welfare system to state and local governments, reduced bureaucratic restrictions on business -- are the appropiate answers to the problems of the nation.
"Just to come up with something new for the sake of saying something new isn't something we're going to do," Meese says.
The format of a set speech, plenty of rest and no debate with GOP opponents was ratified last month by Reagan's on-target victory in the Republican straw vote in Florida. Charles Black, Reagan's national political director, said that the victory deepened the strategists' conviction that Reagan should stay out of a joint appearance with other GOP candidates in Des Moines Jan. 5.
"Our situation is one where we don't have the same problems other people do," Sears said last week. "As a campaign we get covered [by the press], we can rely on that. We're not in a position where we have to match appearances with other people.
There are times when Reagan seems less sanguine than his strategists. He acknowledged in an airplane interview late Friday night that some of his staunchest Iowa supporters would like to see him debate other Republican candidates in Des Moines.
"We're going to talk about it," Reagan said. "I still can't see myself retreating on the debate thing and yet I can understand the conspicuousness of not doing it.
But as Reagan demonstrated when he announced that he would not compete in the Puerto Rican Republican primary, he often seems to be less in command of basic strategy than his managers.Reagan said Thursday that, as far as he knew, he would participate in every primary. The next day, he said a decision had not been made to go into Puerto Rico for the Feb. 17 vote because it would conflict with campaigning in Iowa, where caucuses will be held Jan. 21, and in Connecticut, where the primary is not until March 25.
In his two terms as governor of California, Reagan was known as a heavy delegater of authority. He once said he tried to choose good people for executive positions and let them make as many decisions as possible. It is evident that he is following the same practice in his presidential campaign.
What Reagan has been trying to do on the road in 1979, in the words of one strategist, is "massage our friends, reassure them that we haven't changed that much, give them a closer touch with the candidate."."
He seemed successful in accomplishing these purposes last week, particularly at a Columbia, S.C., rally where an emotional crowd of 3,000 supporters stomped and applauded when Reagan talked about making the United States "respected again so that no dictator will dare invade a foreign embassy and hold Americans captive."
Reagan will spend the next 21 days at home, enjoying the holidays, cutting some television tapes for the Iowa campaign, meeting with strategists and giving a few interviews. He expects Connally, who has rejected federal matching funds and the spending ceilings that go with them, to outspend him heavily in a few states. But he doesn't seem especially concerned by this prospect, and he thinks he is doing well.
"You've got to be ready to go for the long haul," Reagan said on his last day of campaigning in 1979. "We're going to go all the way and try to amass the necessary number of delegates to be nominated."
Unless a Republican opponent demonstrates in an early primary or caucus that he is serious competition, Reagan will continue to travel this "long haul" road in the easy-riding manner of a contented frontrunner.