Joe Louis Arena, Detroit — There have been no headlines to proclaim the significant event: yet the Republican Party, in deliberations here, has moved to the right and then back toward the center in just a matter of a few days.
GOP party chiefs, national chairman Bill Brock, and Sen. Robert Dole, had become concerned over elements in the platform that tilted the party rightward: the dropping away from endorsement of ERA, the conservative approach to the abortion question, the plank that would repeal the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit, and, more than anything else, the tone of "hawkishness" in the platform preamble.
So with explicit approval from the Reagan people, who want to be certain that Mr. Reagan will have a broad base of voter backing this fall, Messrs. Brock, Dole, and several other Republicans in Congress arranged to sit down with UAW President Douglas A. Fraser and some of his lieutenants.
In that private meeting the Republicans made it clear that they were deeply interested in knowing what labor wanted -- and in providing assurances that this was a year when Republicans would go far to heed labor's desires.
Doug Fraser promised nothing to the Republicans. But it was a friendly meeting. And, afterward, Fraser forecast that many of the union's 1.5 million members would vote for Reagan instead of Carter.
By this time the drafting session for the platform was nearly over.
But Messrs. Brock, Dole, and company quickly had a plank written that spelled out the Republican Party's concern for the working men and women of America. It made a specific commitment to help Chrysler and the auto industry in general.
"This tilts us back toward the center again," one Republican leader told the Monitor. "For a convention like this to make it known -- and clearly -- that it wants to be the friend of the working man, well, that is something that could help us to pick up some Democratic votes this fall."
Say Senator Dole, the GOP vice-presidential candidate four years ago: "Our hope is that this is the beginning of a new friendship between the Republicans and the workers of America. If we had done this in 1976, I think we would have won the election."
Actually, there were some "liberal" planks inserted in the platform -- one reaching out to blacks, another to Hispanics. But the debates on controversial issues had disclosed the heavily conservative makeup of the platform committee. And the stories in the press were continuing to play up platform committee decisions that clearly leaned rightward.
But the Republican meeting with labor leaders together with the pro-lbor resolution have already done much to break down the growing impression that this convention might emerge with a GOP only slightly to the leftward of the Goldwater party of 1964.
"You know," Senator Dole commented, "I had working men stop me on the street and over in the hotel, saying 'Hey, I liked your meeting with Fraser.' Other Republicans have told me that our move is going over big here among the blue-collar workers."
Actually, Mr. Reagan's potential among Democrats who toil and usually vote Democratic is believed to be considerable. One pollster says he's found more than half of the Democratic blue-collar workers in Detroit at least leaning toward Reagan.
The Republicans are aware of that opportunity -- particularly Mr. Brock, who has worked so hard to try to broaden his party's base. But Mr. Brock knows that those same Reagan-leaning voters may, in the end, vote for President Carter simply because they find it so hard not to vote the party of FDR. And he was concerned that a conservative-flavored platform would be all that it took to ensure the return of those Democrats to their party in the fall.
Mr. Brock and other leaders here now believe their last-minute move may have saved the day -- and averted another election in which the Democrats seem to own the unions, their leaders, and their workers.