In the long stretch from the spring primaries to Labor Day, Republican politicians told almost as many jokes about Ronald Reagan's campaign staff as about President Carter.
For much of this time, Reagan was thinly briefed and badly scheduled. Sometimes he was left to his own devices with local politicians. Often, the speechwriting process was so slow that the story the campaign was trying to convey missed network and newspaper deadlines. Republican professionals were fond of saying, almost as an axiom, that the campaign's only asset was its candidate.
While the Reagan campaign still is unlikely to be rated A for efficiency, many of these recurrent difficulties are now problems of the past.
On Reagan's well-equipped campaign plane, a team that is both collegial and largely Californian has emerged. With improved scheduling and better speeches, the candidate seems more comfortable. And in recent weeks this team appears to be working in tandem to produce material that enhances rather than embarrasses the Reagan candidacy.
When Reagan arrived in Lima, Ohio, last Wednesday to give an economic speech, the system was working well enough to be vaguely reminiscent of the White House.
Armed with a sheaf of material sent from Arlington, Va., headquarters to the campaign plane over a high-speed copier, Reagan knew that unemployment in Lima was 15.5 percent and that the Republican campaign appeared to be making inroads among jobless auto workers living there. A penciled notation reminded him to pronounce "Lima" as in "bean" rather than as in "Peru."
And a separate analysis of the Ohio political situation bluntly reminded Reagan that he shouldn't spend his time on the GOP Senate candidate in this key state.
Reagan accomplished his objectives in Lima. He gained local and national coverage with a counterattack to an economic speech that President Carter had made in Washington the day before.
The genesis of the counterattack occurred in the Sioux Falls, S.D., the evening before when domestic adviser Martin Anderson noticed that the Carter speech had listed "the failure to raise adequate revenues at a time of greatly increased public spending" as a reason for inflation.
This translated in the Reagan campaign as a call for a tax increase, and the candidate so represented it in his stump speech in the Lima public square.
At the Sioux Falls strategy session, it was agreed that the candidate would stick to his standard attack on Carter with the addition of the material on the "tax increase." Reporters who wanted a point-by-point rebuttal of Carter's specific accusations against the Reagan economic program were referred to Anderson for details.
Such decisions are made daily in the campaign at one of two staff meetings held in the hotel where Reagan spends the night. The first is a logistics meeting presided over by campaign tour director Michael Deaver or his deputy, Joe Canzeri, which reviews every detail of the next day's events -- the backdrops for television, the timing of the introductions, the motorcade route, the filing time for the press. Usually, a local political official and a Secret Service representative who must know of any changes in the candidate's plans attend this meeting.
This logistics meeting is held within a half-hour of arrival at the overnight hotel. It is followed by a senior staff policy session at which strategist Stu Spencer and Deaver are the major figures. But the meeting is a team affair at which everyone feels free to speak his mind -- and often does.
The usual participants in this meeting are Anderson, press secretary Lyn Nofziger, issues coordinator Jim Brady and, frequently, speechwriter Ken Khachigian. All are California-based except Brady, a former Defense Department aide and ex-press secretary to John B. Connally.
Khachigian, a former Nixon speechwriter, is considered a find by nearly everyone on the campaign plane, including the candidate. He gets high marks for taking the reams of material moving into the plane from headquarters and turning them into a single draft for Reagan to peruse.
On Tuesday night, in Sioux Falls, there was lots to talk about.
First, there was the evening rally, which turned out to be a public relations disaster so poorly attended that Nofziger was quoted in the local newspaper as criticizing the GOP committee responsible for the event. But the campaign planners consider South Dakota a safe state and they were far more concerned about a Barbara Walters interview originally planned at the city convention center.
An advance man had phoned Canzeri earlier in the day to say that the center was too formal and sterile as an interview backdrop. After consultation, the event was switched to a nearby Indian museum.
Finally, there were live Indians in Sioux Falls who were concerned about Reagan's support of the "sagebrush rebellion," which would turn over large tracts of federal lands to the states.
On the advice of local politicians, Deaver and Canzeri scheduled a private meeting between Indian leaders and Reagan, who assured them he would support Indian treaty rights and reminded the Indians that he had stopped a large dam in California which would have flooded sacred Indian sites.
A hallmark of the early Reagan campaign was the ponderous way it reached decisions, when it reached them at all.This has begun to change, with many crediting Spencer for the difference.
Last week, when it became apparent that the Reagan drive had stalled, the campaign team showed its ability to move quickly.
Reagan's three top strategists at Arlington headquarters -- campaign director William J. Casey, chief of staff Ed Meese and pollster Richard Wirthlin -- flew from Washington to New York for meetings with Reagan and the on-plane team. After a long strategy session in which Reagan expressed his own willingness to debate President Carter, a decision was reached to accept the challenge for a face-to-face encounter with the president.
Some saw the move as a turning point in the campaign which has had many opportunities against an unpopular incumbent but never seems to take full advantage of them.
"We reached a good decision and did it well and quickly," said a Reagan aide late in the week, almost as if he were astonished with the result.