Enter Gerald Ford?

It is doubtful whether anyone in political life has more close friends than Jerry Ford. For months now those many buddies of the former President have been talking to him about running again. But it seems that very few, if any, have been urging Ford to get into the race.

Instead, in one way or another, they have been saying things like this: "Jerry, stay out. Why do you need it? You brought back respectability to the presidency. And every day now your anti-inflation policy looks better and better. Why not just stand on your record and let others carry the burden?"

That quote is from one of the former President's political consultants who talked to him recently. But it appears to be typical of the advice Ford has been getting.

Ford himself would tell you that his friends were counseling him to stay out of it, that they were saying he has earned the right to take it easy now and enjoy life. Some were even being more blunt and advising Mr. Ford that he simply shouldn't take the risk of possibly going out of office as a failure next time around.

Mr. Ford usually thanked his friends for the advice and then smiled rather enigmatically. No, he would say, he has no present plan for running. Yes, he's encouraging others, like Bush and Baker, to see if they can't get the nomination. And, yes, there just might be some circumstances later on that might draw him into the contest.

Here he would rather vaguely talk about some kind of a party draft, either later on in the primary period or at the convention.

People have come away from chats with Ford with the impression that he liked to keep a little speculation going about his possible candidacy but that he had no real intention of getting into the fray.

In any event, this was the assessment of Jerry Ford and his plans up until a relatively few days ago. Now at least one of Jerry's friends says with conviction that he has talked to the former President and that a "new" Ford is emerging, one who clearly is getting weary of being on the sidelines and is beginning to "itch" to get back into public life. Also, Ford's growing interest in running was reflected in a New York Times interview March 2.

Further, our own recent conversations with a number of GOP political leaders inform us that there is an emerging "boomlet" for Ford among those chieftains. They are looking at polls which show Ford to be the most potent of possible Republicans against either Carter or Kennedy. And they are beginning to wonder whether any of the current crop of candidates would be good enough to win next November.

These leaders want victory. And they are beginning to worry about Ronald Reagan's age and at what they see as George Bush's blandness. They talk despondently about Howard Baker's weak organizational ability. And they question whether John Connally will ever be able to overcome his credibility problem.

In sum, they are beginning to wonder whether any of the current crop of GOP aspirants can lead them to a win in November.

Some of these leaders may have been among those of Ford's friends who were counseling him to stay out. But no more. They are letting Ford know -- or at least some of them say they are letting him know -- that they need him now.

So Mr. Ford is getting much and increasing pressure these days to reconsider.

This reporter, too, has had several conversations with the former President since he left office and in each instance was left with this clear impression:

The one thing that would persuade Ford to run more than anything else would be the prospect that Reagan was going to win the nomination.

Ford doesn't really dislike Reagan. But he does remember that the Reagan challenge four years ago diverted his attention from more important matters. And he is not able to forget that after the convention Reagan gave very little assistance to the Ford candidacy.

In fact, Ford may well be of the opinion that, but for Reagan's harassment, he might still be in the White House.

But Ford's main reason for taking on Reagan (if he does) is that he believes the Californian simply possesses too narrow an appeal to be able to win.

Additionally, Ford is understood to believe that Reagan tends to be oversimplistic and is really not up to the task of being president.

So Ford's interest in running is heating up. As Reagan goes -- so goes Ford. Or so it now seems.

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