George Bush today all but abandoned efforts to contest the California primary June 3, and said he will return to his Houston home this weekend to weigh recommendations from staff and supporters that he end his challenge to Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination.
Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. (R-N.Y.) said "the consensus" of two dozen congressional supporters who met today in his Capitol Hill office with Bush campaign leaders James A. Baker III and David Keene was that "George ought to suspend active campaigning and endorse Reagan in the interest of party unity."
Bush, who earlier today got an encouraging pat on the back from former president Gerald R. Ford, was visibly shaken when told of Conable's statement.
"That's the kind of information that is of real interest to me," Bush said.
"A lot of those guys who were at that meeting worked very hard for me. Conable is a very important supporter. I respect what he has to say very much."
Bush said he still would want to find out "who thought what" about the future of his candidacy. "There's a certain credibility factor with what guys like Conable say," Bush said.
Conable said no vote was taken during the meeting in his office, adding that a wide range of views was offered.
Baker said in a separate interview that the campaign was unable to raise funds to challenge Reagan in California's winner-take-all contest on June 3 and was closing down operations there.
He said that Bush could run the full-scale $400,000 campaign planned for in Ohio that day only if he were willing to risk incurring a debt of a quarter-million dollars or more.
Baker said $225,000 was available to run in New Jersey, the third of the big states voting on June 3, but Bush said here it was "unlikely" he would run anywhere if he dropped out of California.
"If you can't do California," Baker said in Washington, "then you can't argue to people that you still have a shot [at nomination] in terms of the numbers. And once you concede that, why do you stay in?"
The latest United Press International delegate count gives Reagan 986 delegates, only 12 short of the 998 needed for nomination, while Bush has 270. Some network projections already put Reagan over the top.
Nonetheless, Bush sounded like a man who would like to test Reagan again, and Ford was encouraging him to continue.
Bush said he would cut short his campaign swing through New Jersey to meet with Baker and key advisers and learn if they think he can raise the money "to do what I'm certain I can. I can carry the state of Ohio. I can carry the state of New Jersey."
But he said he knew that running in the three states "adds up to megabucks. Can we get it? I don't know."
The former ambassador and CIA director made those comments a few minutes before meeting with Ford at the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Ford told reporters he thought it would be a good idea for Bush to stay in the race "if he could find the money to do a respectable job in the remaining primaries."
Competition is beneficial for every one," added Ford, who had considered entering the GOP race and has made clear his availability in case of a convention deadlock.
"If George Bush wants to stay in, he ought to stay in," Ford said. Although the former president insisted he was still neutral in the contest, this was as close as he has come to endorsing a candidate all year.
He encouraged further speculation by noting that Bush victories over Reagan in Michigan and Pennsylvania were "signs" that Reagan may have "difficulty in those kinds of states against the Democratic nominee."
Bush had hoped that his big win over Reagan in Tuesday's Michigan contest would generate money for the June 3 contest. Instead, it was obscured by network projections that claimed Reagan had cinched the nomination.
"Money is hard to get when there are mournful predictions from others that it is all over," Bush said.
Baker, who said the decision on suspending active campaigning would be made by Sunday, dwelled heavily on the risk that the Bush campaign, which has operated in the black for two years, might end with a large debt if a major commitment were made to Ohio.
"No one will ever call George Bush a quitter," Baker said, "but there are pluses to not being a spoiler and going out as a winner."