In the week before he faces the first real test of his front-running strategy in the Iowa caucuses, Ronald Reagan spent most of his time wooing GOP politicians in New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and New York.
These four states together gave Gerald Ford 204 delegate votes in the 1976 Republican National Convention compared with only 23 for Reagan, a difference greater than the 117 votes by which Ford won the nomination. This year, the Northeast is the linchpin of the strategy for nominating Reagan in 1980 and an important part of a possible general election strategy as well.
Despite a drop in the polls in Iowa, which caused some persons in the Reagan camp to wonder if George Bush could pull off an upset there, Reagan stuck doggedly to the strategy laid down by campaign manager John P. Sears calling for Reagan to campaign in the Northeast.
"Reflect on this," says Sears. "This time we don't have the support of Strom Thurmond [who is backing John Connally], and we have the support of half the delegation from New York."
Though the political coyness of a few county chairmen makes a precise count of the New York delegates difficult, there is general agreement that at least 60 of the 123 official Republican delegates on the ballot in the March 25 primary are pledged to Reagan.
In a state where the names of the candidates themselves do not appear on the ballot and where the official delegates are usually dutifully elected, it is the slating process that determines victory. When Nelson A. Rockefeller and his handpicked state chairman, Richard Rosenbaum, called the tune in 1976, Reagan received only 20 of 153 New York delegates.
Reagan has solid organizational backing in the other Northeast states he visited this week.
Ford won all 35 delegates in George Bush's home state of Connecticut last time. A change in party rules from a convention to a proportional primary virtually insures that Reagan will win a hefty share of delegates in Connecticut's March 25 primary balloting.
Reagan lost New Hampshire, where the traditional first primary in the continental United States will be held on Feb. 26, by less than a percentage point of the balloting to then-President Ford. But he lost the delegate contest 18 to 3.
In Vermont, Ford swept 18 delegates in 1976. This year, 10 of the 19 delegates at stake will be chosen at a primary on March 4.The remaining delegates will be named subsequently by the state party committee.
On Wednesday, Reagan drew 600 persons to a GOP dinner in Montpelier, Vt., and 400 others were turned away. Gov. Richard Snelling, who favors noncandidate Ford again, attended and helped boost the Reagan candidacy after first giving signals that he would not come to the dinner at all. He was one of the positive signs that accompanied Reagan this week.
In past years, Reagan has treated the East as enemy territory, and has acknowledged his uneasiness about the region, where he felt the people didn't know him or his record as governor of California.
But Sears, a New Yorker by birth with many ties to eastern Republicans, has attempted to treat Reagan's historical weakness in the region as a strength. He says he believes the East is receptive to Reagan's message because people in the region have become increasingly distrustful of federal solutions to their problems, and because, he says, "Reagan's fresher here."
But Sears and Reagan's Northeast coordinator, Roger Stone, acknowledge that the results in Iowa are likely to affect Reagan's performance in the Northeast.
"If Reagan wins, some party officials who are hanging back are likely to come to him, and we'll have relatively major announcements of support within the next few weeks," says Stone. "If Bush wins, it gives him a shot in the arm and puts the monkey on our back to win in New Hampshire, and win by a substantial margin."
Sears and Jerry Carmen, Reagan's New Hampshire chairman, say that Reagan will win New Hampshire even if he loses Iowa because of his organization, largely intact from 1976. But there are a few signs of nervousness among lesser aides, one of whom said privately that Reagan should have spent the week campaigning in Iowa rather than the East.