The race for the presidency, 1980, has become a series of battles within battles, as the candidates have flip-flopped on political strategies much as they traditionally do on issues.
For the Democrats, there have been, from the start, two distinct campaign strategies -- Sen. Edward Kennedy's hope for an early knockout victory, and President Carter's plan to dig in for a protracted war, in the hope of emerging as the sole survivor. But now the Kennedy strategy has become Carter's, and the Carter strategy has become Kennedy's, as the caissons go rolling along.
For the Republicans, the long-distance race has separated into two distinct contests -- in one, John Connally has taken to rhetorically tackling front-runner Ronald Reagan and ignoring the pack; and in the other, George Bush and Howard Baker have been strategically tackling each other, ignoring the front-runner who is still way ahead.
Just days before the first presidential contest that officially counts, in Iowa, the candidates and their advisers have had time to take the measure of their opponents' blueprints and make a few alterations in their own, as needed. Strategies have been cut and trimmed, and policies hemmed and hawed, to fit.
For months, the most strategically consistent candidate has been Reagan, his carefully controlled campaign a production of his chief adviser, John Sears.
"The nomination is ours unless we blow it," Sears said long ago. And as the campaign moved through 1979, that appeared to be the case. Reagan maintained a strong lead over the Republican pack, ranging from two to three times that of his nearest challenger. Voters were saying in polls that "leadership" was the most important presidential quality, and a CBS-New York Times poll near the end of the year showed 66 percent of Republicans saying Reagan has strong qualities of leadership, to Connally's 44 and Baker's 32.
Reagan's age -- 68 -- appeared no serious handicap, according to the polls. So Sears pressed Reagan into the front-runner strategy, hoping to keep his candidate above the battle.
Reagan has been the man in Saran-wrap, carefully wrapped and hermetically sealed. His campaign appearances were carefully spaced to allow plenty of time for rest and to assure that he would never appear on a stage alongside any of his opponents.Reagan sought never to utter a statement unplanned, no more than he would appear with a hair uncombed.
It began to seem as though a fitting question for Reagan would be, "Does the light really go out when the door is shut?" In New Hampshire, early this month, Jack Thompson, Reagan's press assistant for the New England region, said he had been told by top Reagan advisers that Reagan would not do any more editorial board meetings with newspapers for a while. There were instead just the brief "press availability" sessions, in which Reagan would answer a few questions before being interrupted by a sign-off "Thank you, governor" (and the reporters would turn around to discover that it was usually Reagan press secretary Jim Lake who had uttered the expression of gratitude that ended the press conference).
"I guess he doesn't want any tough interviews," said Thompson, when asked why the longer-running editorial board meetings were not being held. "After all, he's the front-runner. He doesn't have to."
Sears has said the strategy has been built around Reagan's front-runner status. But if the strategy was solely a function of Reagan's front-runner status, it at least appeared to be also a function of his age (Reagan would be the oldest man ever elected president.) For Reagan, the strategy has been to run out in front everywhere, hoping to lock up the nomination by early victories, first in Iowa's caucus, then in New England, and a sweep in the South, and on to the Midwest.
This week the former California governor began to open himself somewhat more to questioning, conducting a number of lengthier press conferences as he moved from state to state. It appeared to be a reaction to his sharp drop in the Iowa poll after his non-appearance at the GOP debate there, and a reaction to press stories that he seemed unwilling to stand for questioning.
Reagan aides say, however, that they had always planned to have Reagan conduct more and lengthier press conferences after the New Year, and that the front-runner strategy remains intact.
If presidential politics were an art form, John Connally's strategy for campaigning would be to buy the world's largest, heaviest statue. His faltering start indicates, however, that he may end up with nothing more than a bust.
Connally set out originally to run a national campaign, Texas-style. He eschewed the practice of running by first carefully preparing grass-roots organizations in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early contest states, opting instead of raise big money from big business and spend it early on mass media. He hoped to catch Reagan in the national public opinion polls by the end of 1979 and be going head-to-head with him from then on.
It hasn't turned out that way. Connally proved to be the man on the white horse for the Fortune 500, but all the money he raised early bought him mostly frustration, as the television networks refused to sell him political advertising so early. Connally remains badely outdistanced by Reagan in the polls, and badly out-organized by Reagan and Bush and others in the early states.
Still, he has set his sights only on defeating Reagan. He complained loudest at the Iowa debate about Reagan's absence -- and now, he has set out on a 40-hour marathon of campaigning through Iowa, not so much to win converts at 4 a.m., but to dramatize his often none-too-subtle contention that he is fit and ready at 62, but Reagan, at 68, is too old for the job.
Connally has shifted his strategy away from Iowa and New Hampshire and to the South, where he still hopes to take Reagan on head-to-head and defeat him.
Connally says he has no regrets about not having built from the grass roots in snowy Iowa and New Hampshire. "I didn't have any choice," he said in a recent interview. "Reagan had party connections, George Bush and Howard Baker and Bob Dole had party connections. I didn't. We had to do it this way."
Bush and Baker, Baker and Bush. While Connally has aimed from the start on beating Reagan, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency has been setting his sights on the Senator from Tennessee. The senator planned initially to ignore Bush, who was just bouncing between one and two points in the national polls last fall.
Today, talk to Bush's campaign aides about strategy and they talk about how they hope to eliminate Baker. And talk to Baker's, and they explain how they will first plant Bush.
Each has viewed himself as the more moderate alternative to Reagan and Connally. (In fact, they are perhaps only slightly more moderate in philosophy, but they both have mastered the political art of appearing thoughtful and moderate even when uttering standard conservative ideology.)
Baker and Bush have each set out not so much as to win the early contests, but to lay the sole claim to being the moderate alternative. Each planned to then let Reagan and Connally have their head-to-head battle in the South, and offer himself in Illinois as the moderate, more electable Republican alternative.
Baker versus Bush was, from the outset, an uneven battle, with Baker far better known and ahead in the polls. Bush was little-known, but had a low negative rating, which his advisers felt indicated that he had a chance to gain rapidly once he became better known. And that is what Baker's campaign proceeded to do for Bush.
Baker carried a planeload of reporters up to Maine as soon as he announced his candidacy, so they could watch him win the Republican convention straw vote there. Instead, Bush won, and he received the headlines. And from that point on, the Baker camp began conceding publicly it would have to deal with Bush.
Bush, meanwhile, had modeled his own campaign after Jimmy Carter's 1976 winning effort. He started early in Iowa, built the best organization, and tried to shake every hand. Baker, on the other hand, started late, scrapped his national campaign staff chiefs and started over, and is only now building an organization in Iowa and New Hampshire. Baker instead is hoping that a mass media blitz will compensate for the shortness of his grass roots.
Back when Reagan was outstripping all of his GOP rivals in that CBS-New York Times poll, the same survey also showed Democrats having strong feelings on the need for presidential leadership. In that survey, 81 percent believed Kennedy possessed "strong qualities of leadership," while about half that number, 43 percent, thought Carter had strong leadership qualities.
Polling for that survey ended on Saturday, Nov. 3. The next day, an Iranian mob took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.