George Bush: "Tell, me, how can Ford do it? What makes him say these things and what makes him think he can win?"

David Keene (Bush's political director): "When you are sitting at home and all your gold club partners and friends are saying you are the greatest thing since sliced bread, you get to thinking that you can do it, no matter what the numbers show." --From a brief strategy conversation aboard the Bush Campaign plane

As Gerald Ford viewed the political landscape from his home in aptly named Rancho Mirage, the White House seemed tantalizingly within reach.

Ever at his side, Col. Robert Barrett, who serves as scheduler and screener and who shares the dream of a return to glory, had made arrangements for his boss to speak with the New York Times several days ago. Now Barrett, who used to be Ford's military aide in the White House before he went into the business of being a handler of ex-presidents, reminisces about the significance of it all.

"To me, it was any newspaper," Barrett explained. "It served my purposes. It got me a headline: 'Ford: Reagan Can't Make it.' Whatever happens from now on, I wanted that and I got it. It was the beginning. It's been a helluva week."

So it has. It was a week in which Mohammad Ali and Gerald Ford both went public with their dreams of a comback. It will be, for both, a battle against the number. For Ali, the numbers are pounds and years; for Ford, they are primary deadlines past and delegates already selected.

And for a number of friends and fans of both Ali and Ford, it has been a rather unsetting week. For the boxer who retired a champ, there are many who always want to remember him standing tall -- they do not want to see him go out flat on the canvas. For the president who retired with political honor, there are many who are close to him who feel much the same.

Such as Melvin Laird. "I don't want to see Jerry hurt," says the man who served at Ford's side first in the House of Representatives and later as secretary of defense. "I just don't think the numbers are there now."

It is, Laird said, too late for Ford to go the primary election route. The only way for Ford to win, he believes, is if there is a deadlocked convention.

There are many who have been close to Ford who share that view. They fear that Ford has been caught, in part, in the aspirations of others who see him as the vehicle for their own returns to fame in Washington. And they fear that the people Ford has been talking to have not given him their candid analyses of just how difficult it would be for him to get in and win.

"To be honest with you," Ford said at one of his press conferences this week, "I haven't been sitting back in a smoke-filled room conniving and scheming and looking at all the primary dates and all that. I can't tell you pragmatically how my candidacy, if I make an announcement, will fall into place."

This has been a week in which Ford's aide, Barrett, found himself suddenly one of America's most ought-after men. He recieved scores of phone messages and returned few of them, striding the golf courses and the college campus (where Ford was doing some recreational swinging and educational lecturing) dividing his time between dispensing theories on presidential swing -- just tending to ex-presidential business as usual.

"Just because you're experiencing pure heroin for the first time, don't try to make an addict out of me," Barrett said to reporters.

One adviser close to Ford professes no concern about how the numbers of Campaign '80 may deal Ford on final hurt. He is John Marsh, who, like Laird, served with Ford in Congress and as president, and who is now one of the founders of the Draft Ford Committee that has just been formed in Washington.

Says Marsh: "If Jerry Ford gets in it, he is going to win it. And I ain't even going to speculate on his losing."

Ford's political future is based upon what one Ford backer called "a few good breaks." One break is that Ford people are hoping Ronald Reagan will run out of money by the time of the June primaries, which includes Regan's home state of California.

Another break is the hop that Ford might -- if he decides to run -- be able to use Howard Baker's position on the ballots of some states, such as Connecticut, as a depository for delegates that later can be declared as his.

It is a strategy that confounds many who are close to Ford; the former president already missed deadlines for primaries and caucuses that will select about half the delegates to the GOP convention, and those states that are left are places where Reagan bested Ford (553 to 446) in the 1976 contest for delegates.

Nevertheless, Ford's strategy is causing other Republicans considerable concern. This includes Ronald Reagan, whom Ford said cannot win a general election, and George Bush.

As the Bush campaign plane was making its way up the Florida coast from Melbourne to Daytona Beach the other day, the candidate and his political director, David Keene, conferred about the prospects and impact of the Ford effort. They concluded that while Ford could not win the nomination on his own, he could siphon off enough votes from others in the field -- chiefly Bush -- to enable Reagan to win the nomination.

EILOGUE: In his last appearance in Florida, before heading out to California, Ford addressed an auditorium filled with people who were interested in -- many of them anxious to support -- a Ford candidacy.Ford gave them little to cheer about as he delivered in an even-paced monotone a speech that was mostly a composite of what he has been saying on the stump for the past three years.

His most politically impassioned moment came when he spoke of inflation, declaring: "Wage and price controls are just a Bandaid on a serious disease."