Gov. James Thompson invited 210 Illinois Republicans to dinner at the executive mansion tonight to take a second look at GOP presidential hopeful George Bush, whom most had ignored a few months ago.
Thompson insisted there was nothing special about the affair, scheduled just eight days after Bush's upset victory in the Iowa precinct caucuses. And Bush, looking pale and weary after weeks of almost nonstop campaigning, said he didn't know what to make of the "two-meal strategy."
But both made their statements with what amounted to a political wink obviously delighting in the tension that courtship has created.
The match has appealed to both.Thompson, who had national ambitions, would like to become a presidential kingmaker. Bush would much enjoy having the popular governor on his side for the crucial Illinois primary March 18.
"I'd love to have his endorsement," Bush gushed on landing here today. "Illinois is important to every candidate. There's no strategy that can be devised that ignores Illinois."
That's probably an understatement. With 102 votes at the Republican national convention, Illinois will have the third largest delegation. And the timing of the Illinois primary -- after a series of early tests in New England and the South -- makes it a critical test of Republican strength.
Thompson, who once flirted with the idea of being a presidential candidate himself, has hosted a series of dinners "to offer a forum for Illinois Republicans to look at the major candidates." John Connally, Sen. Howard Baker (Tenn.) and Rep. John Anderson (Ill.) have all supped at the governor's table.
Bush made his first dinner visit back when he was "George who" and you could put most of his Illinois supporters in a phone booth. Only about 15 persons were invited.
Last year, when Connally was riding high, 108 Illinois Republicans showed up for his dinner with Thompson. A sense of euphoria surrounded the event. Several of the governor's longtime supporters had jumped aboard the Connally bandwagon, and Connally was trying to persuade the governor's patronage chief, Robert Kjellander, to run his campaign here. The conventional political wisdom said that Thompson was leaning toward Connally.
Now Thompson says he's officially neutral in the presidential race. But he drops hints he might endorse someone before the Illinois primary.
He's very coy about it. "The first question I'd have to ask myself is, Is there any percentage in it for me?" he said today."Right now, the answer is no."
The Bush camp is hoping the "no" might change to "yes." And Bush made a quiet trip here a couple of weeks ago to meet privately with the governor.
Thompson barred the press from the dinner tonight, and it was difficult to know exactly what transpired.
"There's no big meaning in this," said Bush's Illinios campaign manager, George Kangas. "But it is an indication that the governor is taking a harder look at our condidate."
An endorsement could be pivotal, Kangas said. "If the governor says Bush, an awful lot of people who said Connally before would start saying Bush."