As the full-of-suprises Republican primary traveling show rolls south and west, its headliners are a newly vitalized John Anderson, who stunningly kept pace with George Bush in Massachusetts and ran just a step behind Ronald Reagan in Vermont; a resurgent Bush, who bounced back in the Bay State after a sound trouncing by Mr. Reagan a week earlier in New Hampshire; and a holding steady Reagan, who ran a strong third in Massachusetts but is still considered the frontrunner.
Illinois Representative Anderson -- who just weeks ago was considered the darkest of horses -- now has established firm credentials to stay in the race. His brightest prospects now are for a strong showing in the upcoming primary in Illinois (March 18).
Independent voters in Massachusetts helped him stake his claim to a major role in the GOP race by awarding him 31 percent of the vote. At this writing, Mr. Bush would appear to have received the highest popular vote -- but also with 31 percent. Ronald Reagan garnered 29 percent; Howard H. Baker Jr. 5 percent; Philip M. Crane and John B. Connally 1 percent; and Robert Dole less than that.
In Vermont, Republicans chose Mr. Reagan over Mr. anderson by 31 to 30 percent -- with Mr. Bush taking 23 percent.
Political writers now are putting together possible new "best case" scenarios for each of the three leaders in upcoming primaries:
* Anderson. Just off his "impossible dream" in New England -- and with his new momentum, Representative Anderson wins in his home state on March 18 and follows that by picking up enough crossover votes to take the Wisconsin primary on April 1.
Mr. Anderson then finally gets to the national convention with about 400 delegates, but with Messrs. Reagan and Bush deadlocked and Gerald Ford, now in the contest, having only enough votes to help another but not himself.
At that point, Mr. Ford gives his support to his old friend and sidekick in Congress, John Anderson, who marches toward the 998 delegates he needs for the nomination.
* Reagan. By winning in Vermont and finishing close to the top in Massachusetts, the former California governor could just keep right on winning.
In fact, he seems due to keep on rolling on March 8 in South Carolina and March 11 in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.
So, Mr. Reagan may be on his way to becoming unstoppable.
* Bush. The ex-Central Intelligence Agency chief may have won a very important victory in Massachusetts, even if by the skin of his teeth. [At this writing, his lead over Representative Anderson was about 1,000 votes out of more than 380,000 cast in the Republican primary -- with 98 percent of the precincts reporting.] The win stopped his decline, one that threatened to wreck him completely.
Now Mr. Bush could launch a comeback, if not in the South perhaps in Illinois and then Wisconsin.
In fact, a new Illinois poll shows Bush out in front with 38 percent, followed by Mr. Reagan with 21 percent and Mr. Anderson with 14 percent.
Is it still possible that candidate Bush with renewed momentum can be able to hang on to that lead? Or will Mr. Anderson with his new momentum be able to capture his own state. Or possibly will these two tend to cut into each other's potential vote and thus make it easier for Ronald Reagan to win?
With the current inability of any one candidate to take command, former President Ford may well decide to get into the race -- even though he has already missed the opportunity to enter more than half of the primaries.
The Ford rationale is one in which he gets enough delegates to become the beneficiary of a deadlock at the convention.
But if Mr. Ford could "decide" the nomination by turning his delegates over to another, would his choice be Congressman Anderson? The former President is also a very close friend of George Bush.
Some of the other Republican hopefuls would seem to have only faint dreams at this point: John Connally has, so far, failed to catch fire. He may have an opportunity to do so in South Carolina;
Senator Howard Baker, still described as a "very attractive candidate," officially withdrew from the race on Wednesday; and the Philip Crane and Robert Dole stories have about been told.