On the surface it is a coronation, a ratification, a cut-and dried convention where the result is predetermined, the outcome already known.
Even some of the participants in the Republican National Convention view it as little more than a huge yawn. Others see it as a dubious and expansive excursion into a Democratic city, where the best that can be hoped for is survival -- or a break in the weather.
But for Ronald Reagan and those who brought him here, the convention opening Monday may be the biggest opportunity -- and challenge --of the entire 1980 campaign.
"It's one time, perhaps the only time, when we'll command the single, focused attention of the voter," said Reagan strategist and pollster Richard B. Wirthlin. "There will be gavel-to-gavel coverage, thousands of journalists, everyone assessing the candidate and his party. How well we do here could determine where we end up in November."
One set of statistics points up the significance of the convention. Slightly more than 12.5 million voters participated this year in the 35 Republican primaries. In contrast, an estimated 40 million adult viewers will tune in during the four days of the Republican National Convention.
Reagan's future will be determined by this national audience, not by the 1,994 Republican delegates who will crowd the Joe Louis Arena here.
If he is to be elected president, Reagan must choose a vice presidential running mate who is acceptable to the nation. He must show in the process of making this selection, which he has had months to think about, the qualities of a decisive, competent executive he claims are lacking in Presi- [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
He must repair some of the damage caused by his party's rejection of the Equal Rights Amendment by declaring his unequivocal opposition to sexual discrimination.
Reagan's problem on that issue was underscored today when former president Ford arrived in Detroit and told reporters, "I am very much opposed to the withdrawal of support for the Equal Rights Amendment."
And Reagan must demonstrate, in the unduplicated national forum of his acceptance speech Thursday, that he can reach beyond his standard rhetorical banquet fare and speak to the needs and aspirations of the nation.
Whether Reagan sees all the possibilities and pitfalls of this convention for his candidacy is not clear. But he has told aides and intimates that he recognizes the importance of the acceptance speech. And, in all his conversations, he has preached the need for party unity, a phrase that many here interpret as code words for the vice presidential selection of George Bush or another relatively moderate running mate.
"I think that if we can maintain the unity that has been apparent we're going to show we can govern the country," Reagan said in Los Angeles last week. "That's a message I'd like people to get from our convention.
Reagan said he believes the convention has tremendous rallying potential for Republicans.
"Traditionally, the conventions have been like the rally before the homecoming game," he said. They focus attention on the candidates and the party. They get the grass roots interested in what's going on. It's the kickoff for the campaign.
Approaching the convention that will nominate him for president, Reagan has much to prove, and both the candidate and his staff see the gathering in Detroit as a good place to do it. Though Reagan won 29 out of 33 primaries in which he competed and 60 percent of the vote, he remains a vaguely out-of-date and somewhat stereotyped political figure in key sections of the Northeast and Midwest.
"I would like to let the public get to know Gov. Reagan better than they do now -- to see him as some of us have seen him, to assess his character and personality," said recently installed Reagan political director Willian Timmons. "There are some misconceptions about him, and I'd like to communicate through the convention some of the qualities that are really superior and let the people judge."
For the delegates, this communication will come through a series of private meetings, where the amiable personality of Reagan usually makes a good impression. But for that national audience Reagan is hoping to reach, the main impression will come from the acceptance speech, the third draft of which is now being circulated to senior members of his staff.
Many Reagan aides have had a hand in the draftsmanship, with a basic verson having been done several days ago by Peter D. Hannaford, a longtime speechwriter. But Reagan, as usual, is working and reworking the language, and it is likely that there will be many changes before Thursday.
One basic addition, in reaction to Republican platform committee's stand on ERA, is likely to be a Reagan reaffirmation of his own opposition to sexual discrimination, including a recitation of laws he signed as governor of California outlawing sexual job discrimination.
"The acceptance speech will be the single most important speech Gov. Reagan makes," Timmons said. "He'll make important speeches in the fall, but nothing with the audience and impact of that speech."
"The acceptance speech," added campaign spokesman Lyn Nofziger, "should set the tone not only for the campaign but for a Reagan administration. It should be presidential in the fullest meaning of the word."
Chief of staff Edwin Meese III and Timmons, convention manager for the Reagan forces, also see Detroit as an opportunity for Reagan and his team to show they are competent to run the government.
"If they handle themselves well in Detroit, if things are in place at the right time, people will see that and say, 'Gee, these guys are competent, particularly in contrast to the ineptness of the present administration.'" Timmons said. "I want to see lots of movement -- flowing, not static -- at the whole convention. Lots of activities by surrogates, caucuses and events that show movement vigor, vitality."
This movement and vitality are not being left to chance.
Working closely with the Reagan forces, convention program director Kenneth C. Rietz cut the convention schedule from the 30 hours of 1976 to 18 hours, adding more convention speakers in the process.
"In political terms, we want to show that the Republican Party is broadbased, interesting and exciting," Rietz said. "We'll have most of the presidential candidates on stage during the convention and all the rumored vice presidential candidates. The signal will be that Gov. Reagan cannot only unify the party but the country."
All of this will de done with television in mind -- a perspective totally congenial to Reagan. Perhaps more than any other presidential candidate, Reagan owes his political to success on television, beginning with a memorable speech he made for Barry M. Goldwater on Oct. 27, 1964.
Reagan launched his 1966 campaign for governor of California with a highly publicized television presentation. As governor, in talks patterned after Franklin D. Roosevelt's radio "fireside chats," Reagan used television to pressure the legislature in behalf of his programs. Down and out in North Carolina after five straight presidential primary defeats in 1976, Reagan turned to television and launched a comeback which kept him in the race and made him the favored canidate in 1980.
This convention has been so carefully scripted for television that it could be called the Prime Time Convention. Each evening is supposed to be balanced carefully between a celebration of Reagan and the GOP and a negative portrayal of the purported ineptness of the Carter administration.
On Monday, for instance, former president Ford is to accentuate the negative with an address expected to highlight the "failures" of his successor. n
"The incompetence and ineptness of the Carter administration must be cited -- probably not by Reagan but by others," Wirthlin said. "We have an opportunity to draw sharp contrasts with the Democrats."
At the same time, Wirthlin added, Reagan must come across as a reasonable candidate who can reach out to the ticket-splitting voters attracted to George Bush in some of the later primaries. A vice presidential selection who is perceived as a moderate presumably would be of help with these voters.
Regardless of his choice for vice president, Reagan must demonstrate on his own that he is up to the job of running the country. For all of his rhetorical skills and his reputation as an above-average governor, Reagan is perceived by many Americans as being too shallow, too simplistic, to hawkish or too old to be president.
It is the shared belief of Reaganites, past and present, that the candidate can go a long way toward overcoming these perceptions if he chooses an acceptable running mate and makes an effective acceptance speech.
"He needs to come out of the convention with the moderates saying nice things about him," said Stu Spencer, political director of the Ford campaign, in 1976 who is joining Reagan. "He has to convey some idea of where he wants to take the country."
Reagan does not have to be reminded that the landscape of presidential elections is littered with candidates who ratified negative images at conventions instead of overcoming them.
The classic Republican example is the 1964 convention, which nominated Goldwater at a time of great party divisiveness. Instead of pulling the party back together, Goldwater invited GOP moderates to take a walk, with his celebrated exhortation that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
The television clips of angry delegates booing Nelson A. Rockefeller's reaffirmation of Republican commitment to civil rights at this convention did as much as any Democratic television commercial to reaffirm the notion the Goldwater Republicans were beyond the fringe. A similar perception of George McGovern and his followers emerged from the 1972 Democratic convention.
Within the Reagan camp, the negative example most often cited is of another Democratic convention -- the one in 1968 that nominated Hubert H. Humphrey. While the convention was going on, Chicago police were battling antiwar demonstrators in the streets, and Humphrey wound up inextricably linked with both that repression and the war.
"I remember people saying that if Humphrey can't control things in Chicago, how can he run the country?" one Reagan aide recalled. "It was a good question. We must show a decent respect for what's happening in Detroit, where unemployment is about 20 percent, and we must convey an impression inside the convention hall that we can do something about the problems if Gov. Reagan is elected."
There are, of course, plenty of examples of conventions which launched a candidate toward success -- the 1960 Democratic convention that nominated John F. Kennedy, the 1968 Republican convention that nominated Richard M. Nixon, and, above all, the 1976 Democratic convention that nominated Carter.
Though the Reagan camp is trying to depict President Carter as an incompetent, indecisive bumbler, Reagan's political operatives express unqualified admiration for the way candidate Carter conducts himself in a campaign. And when they speak of a model for the Republican National Convention, it is the Democratic convention of 1976 they have in mind.
"Carter came into New York having tailed off in the late primaries, as Gov. Reagan did this time," a Reagan aide said. "He would have other problems later on, and he faced a more experienced campaign team. But he staged a convention which demonstrated unity and leadership and charisma, and he came out of New York City wit a lead Ford never caught. If we can do as well in Detroit, we'll be on our way."