As Ronald Reagan fastens his grip on the Republican presidential nomination, some revealing noises issue from his camp. There is talk of trying to enlist Gerald Ford as the vice presidential candidate. There is also talk of moving the campaign headquarters from California to Washington.
Those reports, whether true or not, demonstrate that the people around Reagan know their business. They have ascertained his weak spots and are moving to shield them with professional skill. They are sensible people -- not the wild men painted so luridly by the Carterites.
The Ford talk funds its most authoritative source in the person of the Reagan campaign boss, William J. Casey. Casey has been in direct touch with the former president. In outlining his specifications for an appropriate Reagan running mate at a breakfast with reporters the other day, Casey placed special stress on the quality of being "presidential."
When asked directly whether his list of possibles included Ford, Casey said it would have to "ex officio." When asked what that meant, he responded, "By virtue of his office."
Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, Reagan's chief ally in Congress, has been far more explicit about a Reagan-Ford ticket. He just chatted up the idea with several intermediates, and he talked about it openly in an interview with me the other day.
Ford shows no signs of willingness to accept the No. 2 spot. Even if he were willing, there is a constitutional problem as both Ford and Reagan currently reside in California. The 12th Amendment complicates the election of a president and vice president from the same state.
But talking about Ford as a vice president serves a distinct purpose. It shows a willingness to bind up old wounds and unite the party. It acknowledges the need to balance against the conservative ideology widely imputed to Reagan a running mate of more moderate reputation.
Moreover, a focus on Ford puts a hold on what could become a divisive matter. Virtually all Republicans -- from Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina on the far right to the backers of George Bush -- concede that Ford has the priority claim on the No. 2 job. So long as he is held out as a possibility, the others mute their demands. That way, the Reagan camp keeps maximum freedom of choice until the last minute. When the choice actually is made -- probably just before the convention if not during it -- no one will be in strong position to go away mad.
As to the move to the East, Laxalt and Casey have discussed the matter. They have even mentioned the possibility of finding a place for the Reagans around Middleburg, Va. "So Ron and Nancy can get a little relaxation on horseback," Laxalt put it the other day.
One reason for such a move is purely practical. Constant travel back and forth from coast to coast cuts heavily into time and money. Doing business by telephones, given the time change, is impractical. A national campaign has to have a center. But should it be East or West?
The answer emerges from the basic strategy being formulated by the Reagan people. As Laxalt put it: "We have most of the West. If we didn't have it, we wouldn't be in the race at all. So we won't have to spend a lot of time campaigning there.
"The battle ground is going to be the big states of the South and the Northeast. In the South, Texas and Florida. In the Northeast, the whole belt of states running east from Illinois, through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and maybe even New York. That's where the campaign is going to be waged, and obviously it is much easier to concentrate on that area from a Washington base."
My own belief is that the talk about Ford is largely for effect. I don't think the former president is going to come on the ticket. If nothing else, I think his sense of responsibility would cause him to draw back from perpetrating what would be inevitably be a two-headed presidency.
But I think that the talk of moving the campaign headquarters to Washington is dead serious. A good bet is that Reagan will go back to California after the convention in Detroit and take a month resting and working on campaign strategies. Then he will plunge into a strong, Washington-based campaign, aimed at taking the big states of the South and Northeast.
If that is correct, Reagan's other choices virtually make themselves. To maximize his appeal to the big states of the Northeast, he will have to move to the political center. By the same token, he will pick as a vice president a moderate -- perhaps Howard Baker or even George Bush.