The long-smoldering resentment that Ronald Reagan privately has displayed toward Gerald R. Ford's possible entry into the Republican presidential race boiled over into public view today.
At a news conference here, Reagan declared bluntly that he could be elected president and said he was disturbed by Ford's comment a week ago that the former California governor could not win the general election.
Reagan said first that Ford could "hang up his golf clubs" if he wanted to enter the race, then urged the former president to stay out. "I will tell you right now that I will probably be as happy as I am now if he didn't [run]" Reagan said.
Meanwhile, the supporters of a Ford Candidacy continued their efforts to get the former president into the race. In Washington, the Draft-Ford Committee, headed by former Air Force secretary Thomas Reed, held a news conference to release a list of more than 100 of its new members, including three of Ford's Cabinet secretaries.
Reed was careful to be softer on Reagan than Ford has been, referring to him in a prepared statement only as "the other leading candidate" and insisting, when asked directly, that he considers Reagan qualified to be president, but Ford more qualified.
Standing next to a chart showing the results of a new Lou Harris/ABC News poll that had Ford running ahead of Carter and Reagan behind Carter, Reed sketched out a long-shot scenario by which Ford could build up considerable delegate strength in the remaining primaries. It included using a "surrogate" to win in Texas, where the filing deadline has passed and where Reagan beat Ford in 1976; entering and winning the Michigan and Ohio primaries; and beating Reagan in his home state of California.
Reed acknowledged that if Ford doesn't get in the race by March 20, the filing deadline for Ohio, it will be too late.
Ford is scheduled to meet with his closest political advisers Wednesday in Washington to assess his prospects in a late-starting campaign.
Ford associates said today that they have been gathering information around the country the last several days in preparation for the Washington meeting.
Part of the effort to assess Ford's prospects took place Sunday in Chicago at a meeting that brought together leaders of the newly formed Illinois Draft-Ford Committee and two key advisers to the former president -- Calfornia political consultant Stuart K. Spencer, Ford's chief strategist in 1976, and Rep. Richard B. Cheney (R-Wyo.), Ford's White House chief of staff.
Wednesday's meeting in Washington will reunite several key figures from the 1976 Ford campaign. In addition to Spencer and Cheney, those expected to attend include former White House aide John O. Marsh and pollster Robert Teeter.
Teeter is working for GOP hopeful George Bush, but is believed to have an understanding with Bush that would allow him to join a Ford campaign.
Ford is to arrive in Washington Tueday and attend a private dinner for former Federal Reserve Board chairman Arthur Burns. The former president also is to address a GOP congressional dinner Wednesday night and meet with reporters at a breakfast Thursday. A group of GOP governors will meet Thursday to discuss a Ford race.
One Ford associate said today that the former president genuinely has not made up his mind about entering the race. But this adviser also outlined events in the next eight days that could substantially increase the prospects of a Ford candidacy.
According to this view, Reagan is likely to sweep Tuesday's primaries in Florida, Alamba and Georgia, severely damaging Bush's claim to be a viable alternative to the former California governor.
Moreover, the Ford intelligence gathering operation has been told that Rep. John B. Anderson is running strong in his home state of Illinois and could win the popular vote in the March 18 primary there, with Reagan finishing second and Bush a distant third. Ford is not entered in the Illinois primary.
After losses in the South, a setback in Illinois could be fatal to the Bush campaign, the Ford adviser speculated.
In the view of this Ford adviser, Reagan would then have the nomination all but locked up, because Anderson is viewed as having too narrow a base in the GOP to win the nomination, and his candidacy is seen as a "nuisance."
Reagan's admirers sketch a similiar scenario and believe that, without Ford in the race, their man could lock up the nomination quickly. Reagan is confident he could defeat Ford for the nomination, but there is a feeling in the Reagan camp that Ford's entry would mean a long campaign in which Reagan would be portrayed as a rightwing extremist. This, in turn, is seen as a serious obstacle to rallying Republicans and independents against Carter in the general election.
Reagan has told intimates that he doesn't want to say anything publicly about Ford that could be constructed as being divisive, but he came close today.
Asked why he was disturbed about Ford's statement, Reagan said:
"It wasn't just about the need for stopping me. [It was] that he expressed the belief that I couldn't win in the general election. And I don't believe that any Republican or any Republican candidate should say that about any other candidate."