With three southern states preparing to vote on Tuesday, the presidential hopes of George Bush have been buffeted by Gerald Ford's desires to drop into the 1980 campaign and most recently by John Connally's decision to drop out.
Ronald Reagan now seems likely to sweep the Republican primary elections in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, Reagan and Bush strategists agree. President Carter appears sure to do the same in the Democratic contests in those states, advisers to the president and Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy say.
And, in a year that has already produced its share of political surprises, presidential politics in the South has suddenly become a snore of a subject.
For the Republicans, the question seemed to be how many delegates Reagan will win out of the 114 at stake Tuesday. The Reagan strategists were claiming they could come away with between 97 to 100. And the Bush advisers were not making a strong claim to the contrary.
"I think we'll lose Florida by maybe 10 [percentage] points now," said David Keene, Bush's national political director. Campaign manager James Baker figured the margin to be 8-to-10 points down for Bush. Florida, the Bush men had long felt, represented their best chance for stopping Reagan in the South.
"I suspect now most of the Connally support in the South will go to Reagan," Keene said. "His support in the South was a combination of conservatives plus some people who were just looking for an alternative to Reagan."
In Florida, recent newspaper polls had shown Connally with only a couple of percentage points. But this is a state where delegates are distributed on a winner-take-all basis in each congressional district, and even this margin could prove significant when added to Reagan's total in districts that once seemed virtually even.
Up until this past week, Bush's advisers were saying they thought they would carry at least five of Florida's 15 congressional districts -- in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Orlando, Sarasota, Palm Beach and Brevard County (from Melbourne to Cape Canaveral).
They thought Reagan would carry another five, two along the Alabama and Georgia border and three in the southern Gold Coast that stretches from Fort Lauderdale to Miami, where Reagan is strong, especially with Cuban-American voters.
The remaining five districts were considered a toss-up by the Bush people.
Now Bush aides say Connally's withdrawal may have thrown all five of the swing districts to Reagan. "And it might turn a couple of others that were ours into the questionable status," Keene said, mentioning one in Palm Beach, one in Brevard County and perhaps one outside St. Petersburg. p
Reagan's Florida campaign manager, Tommy Thomas, says he believes Reagan has a shot at carrying every district in the state, but that Bush will probably win two, in the St. Petersburg region. This would give Bush six of Florida's 51 delegates, plus perhaps a couple more that will be selected at large. All the rest would go to Reagan.
In Alabama, Bush is considered less popular than in Florida. But the topsy-turvy nature of the selection process means that Bush stands, by the reckoning of both camps, to fare somewhat better in the delegate hunt there. This is because Alabama's delegates are divided proportionately according to the vote within each congressional district. Bush is expected to pick up 10 or more of Alabama's 27 delegates even if he does not carry a single district.
In Georgia, Reagan people believe their candidate is likely to come away with all 36 delegates.
David Nickles, Reagan's southern coordinator, says Bush has an outside chance of carrying Atlanta -- "our worst district." In 1976, this district proved to be Reagan's worst: he carried it with only 54 percent against incumbent president Gerald Ford, as he swept Georgia and Alabama by commanding margins. This came after Reagan had lost to Ford in Florida by 53 percent to 47 percent.
While George Bush's advisers were surveying their candidate's southern prospects without enthusiasm, they were reserving most of their emotion -- all of it negative -- for the broader matter of what the recent comments and actions by Ford have been doing to their candidate's candidacy.
"Ford is clearly attempting to 'deep-six' Bush," said Keene. "The assumption is that if he can destroy Bush then he can come in as the alternative to Reagan . . . the effect of it is to stick a knife into George Bush."
Keene said that at this stage of the campaign, they had hoped a number of prominent middle-of-the-road Republicans would be coming out for Bush. "Now none of that is going to happen," said Keene. "These politicians are instead just sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what Ford will do," he said.
In Fort Lauderdale Sunday, Bush responded directly to questions about the Ford candidacy by saying he had no intention of getting out of the race in case Ford decided to get in. Bush made this statement at the urging of his advisers, who felt it necessary to get that message across not just to the former president but to other Republican politicians in the country.
But Bush campaign manager Baker said there is no effort among Bush advisers to try to actively stop Ford from entering the race. "We have done everything we can to avoid even the appearance of participating in a counter draft-Ford movement," Baker said. He added: "Any attempt at a counter draft-Ford movement would be counterproductive. It might only push him into the race."
Most of the attention on the Tuesday contests in the South centered around Florida. And most of that Florida attention centers around the Republican race. This was because it was clear long ago that Carter had the entire South, including Florida, won. The Kennedy campaign spent virtually no money on the effort. But as the Miami Herald noted today, Kennedy did spend more time campaigning in the state than any other Democratic candidate -- he spent one day.
There are 208 delegates at stake in the Democratic races in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.One place Kennedy hopes to take a few from Carter is along Florida's Gold Coast, where Jewish residents are angry over the administration's vote against Israel at the United Nations a week ago and the subsequent admission that the vote was a mistake.
For the Republicans, the Sunday withdrawal of Connally from the presidential race led to some rather quick maneuvers. Reagan campaigned in Florida today with a new political prize in tow: state legislator Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville, who was Connally's Florida campaign chief and who wasted no time in latching onto the coattails of front-runner Reagan just before the former California governor left the state for a quick swing through Georgia and Alabama.
Reagan had led Bush decisively in newspaper polls taken in recent weeks but just published this past weekend. In one poll by a group of four newspapers in the state, he led Bush by 45 to 32. A smaller -- and thus less reliable -- catchup survey by the same four newspaper groups was undertaken just after the Massachusetts primary and it showed the race as having tightened to 38 to 36. But neither the Reagan nor Bush people say they believe the race was actually as tight as that in recent days.
But after that poll, Reagan scored a landslide victory in South Carolina, as Bush finished a distant third behind Connally. Reagan supporters figured that boosted his chances in the other southern primaries.
The Miami Herald poll that spanned an unusually long period and thus is of questionable value (it was begun the day before the New Hampshire vote) showed Sunday that Reagan was leading Bush by 42 to 26.