Detroit — Seldom, if ever, has the choice of a running mate loomed as more important to assembled GOP delegates -- or to the nation. The convention wants to assure the voters that if Ronald Reagan decides on a one-term presidency, or if some disability would shorten his term, there is an exceptionally able person standing in the wings.
Delegates see this as a necessity if Mr. Reagan, who will turn 70 just days after Inauguration Day, is to win this fall. And they invariably add that they think this choice of an exceptional running mate is a responsibility Ronald Reagan has that goes beyond political consideration -- it is something he owes to the American people.
Even though Mr. Reagan for the last year has emphasized that he has no thought of limiting his time in the presidency if the voters desire to give him eight years there, the one-term question is relevant.
As late as July of last year, the GOP front-runner was leaving the door open, at least slightly, for a single-term Reagan presidency.
Although this information never surfaced publicly, some of Mr. Reagan's top aides who were around him at that time were counseling him to deal with what they then thought might be a serious "age question" by simply telling the voters he would serve only one term.
Of course, Reagan decided against that course. Instead, he heeded advice that said by announcing a one-term intention he would only be underscoring whatever liability his age might prove to be among the voting public.
But last July, Mr. Reagan's preoccupation with the idea of stating in advance that he would stay only four years came through clearly in an interview.
"I think," he said, "what is needed in that job is someone who will decide from the first day in office to do what has to be done -- without putting his attention on the election four years down the road.Maybe that is what has led so many people to suggest a single term."
It was here in the interview that Mr. Reagan indicated he just "might possibly" follow this course of action. While he has not announced any intention to limit his time in the White House if he gets there, he just might -- if and when he arrives.
The delegates are here to praise -- and admire -- Ronald Reagan. And there is plenty of praise and admiration all around. But there also is an anxiety about Mr. Reagan's age that is expressed by about half of the delegates one talks to.
This percentage is right in line with a recent finding of a Monitor survey of state chairmen and chairwomen and national committee members. Of 108 who responded to a questionnaire, exactly half said they were troubled by Mr. Reagan's age.
This worry, expressed by delegates as well as leaders of the party, is not about Mr. Reagan himself. They invariably say they are convinced the rugged Californian is in great physical shape. Their concern is that, in the end, voters might turn Reagan down unless they are assured that there is an outstanding substitute in the wings, ready to take over if needed.
Mr. Reagan's "age problem" has an easy solution, as these Republicans see it: Simply choose a person that the public will see as being "presidential."
Who looks presidential? That quality lies in the eyes of the beholders. But Mr. Reagan says he's listening to advice from leading Republicans. And if that is so, he will find it difficult to turn down George Bush.
Mr. Bush certainly looked "presidential" to a lot of voters this year because he made an impressive showing in the primaries. Additionally, a recent Monitor survey showed that state leaders in all 50 states were heavily in favor of Bush being put in the running-mate slot.
So it could be argued that the person who looks most "presidential" today in the Republican Party -- next to Mr. Reagan -- is Mr. Bush.
But there are other possibilities, too. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. certainly is viewed by his colleagues as possessing oustanding leadership ability. And there is former President Ford. But Mr. Ford says both privately and publicly he's not available.
And there are doubtless others who could ease the anxieties of voters. But Mr. Reagan will have to find just the right person or end up with a vice-president who may lose him the election.