A strong movement for the vice presidential nomination of George Bush, boosted by the firm support of former president Gerald Ford, developed today as the Republican National Convention drew close to the opening gavel.
Ford lavishly praised Bush on national television as "very attractive, very dedicated, experienced, a very unselfish individual, a very fine person."
In a private meeting with Ronald Reagan on Tuesday, Ford is expected to go even further and suggest that Bush, a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, which Reagan opposes, would be the best candidate to unify the party.
Although this view is widely shared among conservatives and moderates at this convention, it does not necessarily mean that Reagan will select Bush as his running mate. Spokesmen for the former California governor and certain Republican nominee insisted that Reagan had not made up his mind and that several prospective candidates are still in the running.
Others believed to be on the list are former secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Michigan Rep. Guy A. Vander Jagt, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, New York Rep. Jack F. Kemp and, some say, Tennessee Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.
One point being stressed in the Reagan camp is that the candidate will be looking at the on-stage performances of some of his prospective running mates at the convention.
Rumsfeld is scheduled to speak Monday night and then return to Illinois. Vander Jagt, an accomplished orator who speaks without notes, will deliver the keynote address Tuesday. Bush, who arrived in Detroit today, is scheduled to address the delegates Wednesday night.
Bush, who received the backing of six conservative southern GOP chairmen on Saturday, continued to pick up endorsements today. s
Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, who previously was for Baker, said today that "Bush is what you look for in a vice presidential candidate -- no negatives." George Romney, a presidential candidate in 1968, said that Reagan ought to "balance the ticket" by picking Bush.
A number of moderate Republican governors, especially Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken and Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, both from states that Reagan will target in the fall campaign, previously have recommended Bush.
Appearing on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC), Reagan chief of staff Ed Meese listed criteria that seemed to fit Bush nicely. He said that Reagan wanted to choose someone who was perceived as capable of being president, philosophically compatible with Reagan and able to strengthen the ticket.
But Meese, in keeping with the Reagan staff policy, named no names. Within the Reagan camp there were two signals Saturday, one that seemed to favor Bush and the other that pointed to an alternative running mate.
The latter signal was a comment that some of the support for Bush at this convention could be discounted because he is a former Republican national chairman with strong organizational ties within the party.
On the other hand, persistant reports that Bush is disliked by Reagan or his wife, Nancy, were firmly denied. Reagan is known to have questioned Bush's presidential qualities after their Feb. 23 debate in Nashua, N.H., but this comment was described today as merely "a reservation" that would have to be weighed against some obvious Bush assets.
The chief assets, as they are viewed by Bush's supporters in Detroit, are that he showed he could win, against the formidable opposition of Reagan, the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, that he brings organizational support, including some of the party's most effective moderates such as Milliken, and that his nomination will be perceived as a "reaching out" by Reagan to unify the party with a candidate whose views on women's rights differ from his own. Bush also is seen as a hard campaigner.
The deficiencies for Bush are the still-open question of whether he is compatible with Reagan, plus his demonstrated lack of appeal to working-class voters who will be targeted in the fall campaign.
Ford gave a private boost to Bush Saturday and a public one today on "Issues and Answers" (ABC, WJLA). He declined to endorse Bush in so many words, but when interviewer Barbara Walters read him a checklist of vice presidential possibilities, he gave by far the strongest praise to Bush and Baker, whom he called "probably the most able legislator in the Congress of the United States." Baker has been the principal target of ultra-conservatives who want Reagan to name a running mate in his own mold.
Ford damned Lugar and Kemp with faint praise, and called them "relative newcomers on the national scene." He had even fainter praise for his former secretary of the treasury, William Simon, whom he called "a little hardline." sAnd while he said that Rumsfeld had done "a superb job" as his chief of staff, he also observed that he had "not been too active politically in the last three and a half years."
Ford's enthusiastic backing in the fall campaign is important to Reagan. One Reagan source observed that Reagan had asked the former president to meet with him Tuesday, adding, "He wouldn't have asked for his recommendation if he didn't want it."
Unhappy with the right-wing cast of the Republican Party platform, Ford reportedly plans to tell Reagan at that meeting that it is now more important than ever to choose a running mate acceptable to the moderate wing of the party.
Ford made his views known to a handful of friends at a private party in honor of his 67th birthday at the Renaissance Club in the Detroit Plaza Hotel. Among those attending were Ford and his wife, Betty; House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes; House Minority Whip Robert H. Michel; Clark MacGregor; former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger; Republican National Chairman Bill Brock, and the Leonard Firestones, major GOP contributors.
Ford expressed the view that the Republican platform planks opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion were sending the wrong message to the American public just at the time when things were looking good for the GOP.
But Ford and others at his table felt strongly that the problem could be quickly overcome if Reagan chose an acceptable vice president.
A somewhat different view came from Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, the Reagan chairman, who said that "the dream ticket" for the GOP would be Reagan and Ford but that it was asking too much of Ford to accept the second spot.
Appearing on the program "Face the Nation," (CBS, WDVM), Laxalt said he had been told by Reagan aides that a story in The Washington Post saying he was no longer on the vice presidential list was "absolutely false."
Laxalt said he was still on the list "as far as I know."