Washington — Senator Baker's recent expressions of disinterest in the vice-presidential nomination should not be taken too seriously. The senator, above all, wants to be president -- and he knows that the v-p slot under Reagan could be a good steppingstone to that objective.
There's a bumper sticker that even says, "Reagan in 1980 -- Baker in 1984." And there is, indeed, as Baker very well knows, a good possibility that a President Reagan who would be approaching his mid-70s by 1984 might well decide to step down after four years.
Reagan is currently soft-pedaling the possibility of a one-term presidency. In fact, he has been advised to do so lest he lose the support of voters who might feel that no president could get much done in just four years.
But in a Monitor interview in late June of 1979, Reagan made it clear that he was entertaining the idea of a one-term presidency.
"I think what is needed in that job," Reagan said, "is someone who will decide from the first day in office to do what has to be done -- without putting his attention on the next election four years down the road." Then he paused, adding thoughtfully:
"Maybe this is what has led so many people to suggest a single term. They have the feeling, or are aware, that presidents have spent their first four years making judgments that are kind of based on the voting constituency. I don't believe a president should do that."
At that time Reagan aides were telling us that Mr. Reagan was thinking about seeking to dilute his age problem by announcing that if elected he would serve only four years. Since then, the Reagan strategy has changed.
But the one-term possibility for Reagan is clearly there. Why then is Senator Baker talking as if he's almost closing the door on the running-mate slot?
For the answer, one has only to look back at 1976 and the emotional wringer that Baker went through at the GOP convention. For a while Baker thought he had been selected by Ford for the No. 2 spot. Then, within hours, he learned publicly that Ford had chosen someone else, Senator Dole.
Anyway, at that time, Senator Baker vowed that he would never again allow himself to be wooed and then rejected for the vice-presidential slot. In fact, he said then that he would never again be available for that place on the ticket.
So what then does Senator Baker really mean when he lets it be known that he wants to stay in his Senate minority leader position and that he is not interested in being on the Reagan ticket?
What Baker really is saying to Ronald Reagan (and those senators who are closest to Baker agree with this theory) is this:
"I'm not interested in being one of those you put on the list of possibilities for your running mate. I'm not interested in any interviews with you or in going through some kind of a selection process. If you come to me and offer it to me -- I'll take it. But don't play with me. I'm never going to be embarrassed again by another rejection."
Actually, if one looks closely at the words that Baker himself uses in expressing his disinterest in a running-mate role, one soon finds that the senator leaves a little crack open. Baker says he might take the No. 2 spot if Mr. Reagan comes to him and says he simply must have him on the ticket in order to win in November.
Republican leaders here and all over the United States now favor Baker for the vice-presidential spot -- in great part because they believe he will be perceived by the voters as clearly presidential timber.
Reagan, for some time now, has been leaning toward choosing Baker. The two are personal and social friends. And Reagan likes the idea of having Baker beside him and working as his bridge to Congress.
So Baker is willing. And in the opinion of several of those who are closest to Reagan, he is still the most likely to become Reagan's running mate.