As February begins, the political presidential tide is flooding into New England, where the candidates are heavily concentrating time and effort. But the month wasn't two days old before a warning shot was fired from far-away Arkansas at the expectations set by the Jan. 21 Iowa precinct caucuses.
The shot was at George Bush, who suddenly became the Republican comer after his Iowa win. And it was fired by the forces of Ronald Reagan and Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., who, official Arkansas Republican sources say, helped each other's slates of delegates in the Feb. 2 caucuses there.
The result in the four Arkansas congressional district caucuses was Reagan 6, Baker 4, Bush 1 -- and one undecided leaning toward Senator Baker. Arkansas political observers had been predicting a three-each split for the three contenders. John Connally had not really campaigned in Arkansas.
"The caucus result was as surprising to us as to outsiders," says Lynn Lowe, Arkansas Republican state chairman. "Baker and Reagan put their forces together to elect each other's delegates." Delegates were interviewed and directly chosen by party officials.
However it was arrived at, the Arkansas outcome helps bolster Southern and border state claims for Mr. Reagan and Senator Baker.
Arkansas -- a rural state, with 2 million people and few large cities -- is politically conservative, like much of the South. Although the state went for Jimmy Carter in 1976, the President is thought to be doing poorly there now. Mr. Reagan's appeal to conservative voters and his strength in the South against a Democrat, and Senator Baker's claim as a native of neighboring Tennessee, were as much at issue in Arkansas as George Bush's early momentum.
Mr. Reagan's Arkansas campaign stressed his "track record" as a former California governor and his appeal to conservative Democrats. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Arkansas by 4-to-1.
Senator Baker wanted a reprieve in Arkansas after investing 27 days of hard campaigning in Iowa to little avail and before a month-long siege of New England , where he will spend 20 days campaigning this month.
The 12 Arkansas delegates now chosen by party officials, plus another seven to be named at the state party convention Feb. 16, will be the first official delegates to the Republican National Convention this summer. By contrast, Iowa's delegates and delegate totals will continue to shift as Iowa Republicans go through county and district-level caucuses before nailing their national delegation down at a state party meeting June 6.
Meanwhile, the national campaigns continue sharply tilted toward New England. On the Democratic side, the Carter forces are sending the President's family, the Vice- President, and teams of Washington workers "on leave." Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts will spend 16 days in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts before the New Hampshire primary balloting Feb. 26. The Maine caucuses are Feb. 10, the Massachusetts primary March 4. Mr. Kennedy will spend two days in Florida and Puerto Rico and the remaining few days in Washington, D.C., to reach the national press. He plans no trip to Minnesota, where nearly four times as many delegates as in New Hampshire will be chosen at party caucuses the same day.
Among Republicans, the South will get modest play this month. But it is mostly New England for the GOP too -- the latest Boston Globe poll puts Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan in a dead heat in New Hampshire.
Mr. Reagan will spend more than half the month in New Hampshire, with a few days in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. Mr. Bush will spend a dozen days in New England, with brief visits to Puerto Rico and Minnesota. Rep. Philip Crane of Illinois will put in 10 days in New England, six in the South, and one in Illinois. Rep. John Anderson of Illinois will spend "the whole month in New England." And Mr. Connally, with only five days in New England, will spend a week in the South and three days in the Midwest.