Washington — There are now two questions to which we will never have firm answers -- only clues. Could former President Gerald Ford have won the Republican nomination if he had tried?
Would he have made a strong, perhaps even stronger, candidate than Ronald Reagan?
I can cite one fact and one opinion which could bear on the answeres. The fact is that in 1976 he came within the narrowest of margins of being elected -- 12,792 votes. Had 7,233 Mississippians and 5,559 Ohioans voted Republican instead of Democratic, he, not Carter, would be dealing with the affairs of state. The opinion is that the top White House political aides are convinced that the former President would be the toughest candidate to defeat in the fall election.
Why did some of those Republican leaders, particularly in Congress, who were beginning to turn fondly toward Jerry Ford, believe he would be a strong opponent and difficult for Carter to defeat? Here is what they said:
A Ford candidacy effectively would have countered Carter's greatest asset -- that of incumbency. This has helped the President rise high in the polls while it has done much to cause Senator Kennedy to drop in the polls. Ford alone could challenge the President on the basis of firsthand experience in the White House, and this would add credibility to his criticisms of the way Carter has handled both the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Ford particularly would be able to make a strong case that Carter was tardy in coming to his new perceptions of Soviet objectives and in responding to them. Ford proposed to help Angola to resist the Soviet-Cuban incursion and was blocked by a Democratic Congress years before Carter sought to turn back the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There are other achievements in the Ford record which would have figured valuably in the campaign:
Ford did something about inflation, and at the end of his term the Consumer Price Index had dropped from 12 percent to the low level of 4.8 percent -- and has been going up ever since.
Ford as a Republican achieved as much cooperation from the Democratic Congress as has Carter, a Democrat.
Finally, there is President Carter's gracious praise of Ford in the opening sentences of his inaugural address when he commended him for having done so much toward "healing our land."
Nearly all of these ingredients in the Ford record are being constantly cited by the Republican presidential contenders as reasons why their own nomination would be desirable. But Ford supporters point out that he would have been able to say to voters: "I did it and, if you elect me, I could do it again."
Despite all of these advantages, Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976. But in 1980 Carter will have to run on his record, not on promises which looked quite glittering at the time.
This is the case which Ford's advocates made as to why the Republican Party needed him again this year, but there were high hurdles in the way.
Already the filing date for 21 primaries, comprising 980 of the convention's 1,994 delegates had passed. Reagan, Bush, and Anderson weren't going to give up , and there is no reason they should do so. As to Ford's suggestion that Reagan would lose to Carter, it can be pointed out that Reagan won two decisive victories for the governorship of California, a state with a lopsided Democratic registration.
A Ford nomination could have had merit, but now the only scenario I could see as possible to bring it about would be for the early balloting at the convention to be so divided that neither Reagan nor Bush nor Anderson could gain a majority. Such circumstances could still propel Ford to the top.