Washington — Every once in a while a presidential candidate comes along who is perceived as the "political darling" of his supporters. Stevenson was so labeled -- and written about in precisely those terms. So was John Kennedy -- and then Robert Kennedy. And Humphrey.
But "darling" isn't a title won by Republicans. Not Willkie, who was widely admired. Certainly not Goldwater, who had and retains a loyal constituency. Nor Reagan either. His is a detached warmth.
And no one in his right senses would say that Nixon was a "darling" of anybody -- although his backers and admirers were legion.
Eisenhower? He evoked an arm's-length affection from about everyone. But that tough, often crusty general was certainly not everyone's darling.
Now relatively youthful and highly personable George Bush is at least threatening to break this GOP "darling" barrier.
As national GOP chairman, Bush became the friend of state GOP chairmen and national committeemen, most of whom now favor him for president.
But Bush's likable qualities project beyond party lines. In Iowa, reporters found many Democrats saying that, if Kennedy became the eventual nominee, they would have trouble voting in November -- but that one Republican they could vote for would be Bush. And reporters found other Democrats saying that, if Carter and Bush were nominated, they might vote for Bush in the fall. No one else among the Republicans would keep them from registering a nonvote.
Their reasons? They thought they were perceiving an honest individual who would bring intelligence and vigor to the presidency. But, more than anything else, one heard words like these: "I don't know what it is, but I just am attracted to that fellow."
Perhaps as time goes on the Bush position on issues -- both foreign and domestic -- may turn some of the Democrats off. He may be too hardline on the Soviets or too promilitary. Or he may not be sufficiently in favor of pushing social programs. But -- as of now -- Mr. Bush is reaching far beyond Republicans toward the Democrats and independents he would need to win the presidency.
As of now, too, the press is treating Bush like a political darling. Much of his good press comes from Bush's surprise win over Reagan. But the warmth in the stories stems, at least in part, from the fact that Bush has been getting reporters to actually like him.
Now when a Republican candidate can do that -- that's really something. Young reporters (unlike their publishers) usually find their heroes and friends among the Democrats.
All this could change. Bush must continue winning. He can be the sweetest guy in the world and the press and public will look elsewhere if his star starts to decline. But at some point the very fact that Bush possesses this likable quality may well lift him above the field for good and all.