"Poor Ronald Reagan," said a Washington-based reporter when he learned that campaign manager John P. Sears and several subordinates had been fired on Feb. 26. "It's going to be a tough row for him without Sears along."
In fact, in the time since Sears was given the gate, Reagan has been behaving like the confident, sure-tongued conservative of a decade ago. Gone are the verbal stumbles and the weary face which made Reagan seem even older than his 69 years. Gone, too, is much of the fratricidal tension that has been a chief characteristic of the Reagan staff since the former California governor announced his presidential candidacy last November.
In fact, the resurrection of Reagan as the Republican front-runner coincided with the decline and then the dismissal of his high-powered campaign director, frequently hailed in Washington as the Republican Party's most brilliant strategist.
Sears may well deserve his reputation for brilliance, as he demonstrated in the negotiation preceding Reagan's debate in Nashua, N.H., with George Bush. But it is also true that Sears' well-advertised disregard for his own candidate made Reagan uncomfortable to the point of noncommunication. Former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger, the victim of a Sears coup last summer, has quoted Reagan as saying of Sears: "He won't look me in the eye; he looks me in the tie."
What was especially galling to the Californians who had worked for Reagan in his two successful campaigns for governor was the notion, widespread in the East, that the Reagan presidential candidacy somehow was a Sears creation.
"Ron won two campaigns before he ever heard of Sears," said a Reagan fund-raiser this week. "He [Reagan] knew nothing about running the state and managed to become a pretty good governor. He named able men under him. He's not some plastic candidate who has to be packaged and sold to the country."
As Reagan's long-time supporters viewed the early campaign, the prominence given Sears by the national press reinforced the idea that Reagan was a celluloid creation who could not speak, act or think without direction.
By extension, some of the Californians accepted this view of Reagan as a judgment of themselves. They felt stereotyped as laid-back, on-the-beach southern Californians who lacked the savvy or the political experience to run a national campaign.
These Californians do not eat grits or speak in deep-fried accents. But their reactions to the conventional wisdom that Reagan needed Sears more than Sears needed Reagan was as passionately cultural as Hamilton Jordan's or Jody Powell's reactions might have been if Jimmy Carter had decided in 1976 that a Georgian was not fit to run a national campaign.
Many western politicians believe that their region is more alienated from the rest of the nation than is the South. Like southerners, they're alternatively proud of the region's special blessing and defensive about its shortcomings. More often than not, they see the West as the harblinger of national political and social trends.
It is no accident that Reagan and his closest congressional supporter, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, frequently point out that they won big as Republicans in states where the Democrats have huge majorities. What they seem to be saying to Washington, much as Carter did in 1976, "We're as good as you are, and don't try to tell us what to do."
Imbued with the memory of the 1964 Barry Goldwater debacle, Reagan is smart enough to know that he can't be elected president as the candidate of a region or a region and a half. In an interview en route to Columbia, S.C., the day after he fired Sears, Reagan said he wasn't trying to create "a California Mafia" and pointed out that his new campaign director, William Casey, is a New York lawyer.
But before Casey came aboard, Reagan sounded out his own former executive assistant, California Supreme Court Justice William P. Clark, for the job. Though Clark didn't take it, the man who succeeded him in Sacramento -- San Diego attorney Edwin Meese III -- has become the key figure in the reorganized Reagan apparatus.
Another San Diegan, pollster Richard Wirthlin, is emerging as a major strategist. Reagan also consulted with a transplanted Californian who now lives in Alexandria, Va., former Reagan administration appointments director and Air Force ex-secretary Thomas Reed, before he made his staff changes. Reed now heads a committee to draft former president Ford.
Meese's reputation in Sacramento was that of a patient, collegial administrator who consulted widely and delegated well. He was respected by the Democratic opposition and by the press. For Reagan, who does not like turmoil, Meese assured an atmosphere of measured calm in the tumultous political climate then common to California. Another calming force was long-time aide Michael K. Deaver, who was shoved off the Reagan ship by Sears and his allies last November.
Reagan finds the inner workings of political events boring, an attitude that gave him little in common with Sears. And the former governor detests staff in-fighting of any kind.
"Some executives operate by creating a ferment around them," says one of the California Reaganites. "The governor likes everyone pulling in the same direction."
All this is not to say that Sears is responsible for everything that has gone wrong with the Reagan campaign. Sears pushed, without much credit, for the issues papers that the Reagan organization has never been able to produce. tDeficiences in the fiscal management of the campaign, which survivors blame on Sears, must be shared by them and especially by their candidate, who has been notably indulgent of a variety of spending requests.
Nevertheless, Reagan is a far happier man with Sears out of the way. The Reagan the nation is now seeing, with all its lack of sublety, is the Reagan that Californians saw and elected governor in 1966 and 1970. It is a Reagan he is saying, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has been since his Georgetown speech.
"They no longer have the governor trussed, trapped and afraid to mix it up," is the way one side puts it.
For better or for worse, Reagan is nw free to be himself again.