Men and mirages on the primary trail

Tomorrow's presidential primaries are in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. But sometimes the whole American campaign seems so unreal that the universal dateline should be Rancho Mirage. To be literal, that's the spot in California where former President Ford recently took the rather unusual political stance of declaring that his party had notm asked him to run -- but he would consider an invitation. And Rancho Mirage is where Henry Kissinger, his former secretary of state, bit the bullet over the weekend and did ask Mr. Ford to run. Then the two men publicly agreed not to discuss the matter of whether Mr. Kissinger would be reappointed if Mr. Ford were elected.

Since any Kissinger role would be of central interest to many voters, they might not be satisfied to see a decision on it merely shimmering in the distance. But his is only a small part of what gives the campaign so far its illusory quality. It has been a history of upset expectations. It calls on voters to look beyond the odds-making, sweepstakes aura to the matters they seriously feel worth voting for. Indeed, as they turn out in unexpectedly large numbers, many of them may be doing just that -- thus the undercutting of the odds.

Now that the Democratic contest has become, in effect, a two-man race, the picture there should begin to clafiry. But even with Carter and Kennedy dominating the action, Brown has not counted himself out. And there has been some urging for a late-coming fresh alternative to Carter without the Kennedy personal liabilities. If it is not too late for Ford, so the reasoning goes, is it too late for someone on the Democratic side?

On the Republican side, to be sure, the situation does look more fluid. The New England ups and downs of Bush and Reagan may have canceled each other out. But there was the new Anderson factor and the departure of Baker.

Now the first Deep South primary, in South Carolina, has left as many uncertainties as before. It showed that Connaly could not best Reagan even with such redoubtable local support as Senator Thurmond and former Governor Edwards. But it left Bush somewhat dangling as a poor third. At this writing it appeared that Connally was reconsidering whether to stay in -- a man who was at the top of some prediction lists before the campaign began in earnest.

It all seems to set the stage for Ford to get off the golf course and onto the hustings. Or is this mirage, too? He recalls in his autobiography that Conally was Nixon's choice for president in 1976; that when he himself was deciding on running mates in 1976 he wished at times that Bush had been available; that if he had it to do all over again he might well have picked Anne Armstrong for vice-presidential candidate. Does he really want it to do all over again?

Time will soon run out for any new candidate to declare with a mathematical chance of winning enough delegates. Ford owes it to his party not to temporize while candidates who have worked hard for the nomination remain in suspense over what his candidacy would do to them. If he declares, he will have to work hard, too, not to mention indicating any future role for a Kissinger who says Ford is the best man to handle America's foreign policy crisis. If he doen't declare, he can serve a sidelines purpose in helping to bring forth and clarify the issues. But, after all his display of reluctance in the past, he should not prolong the political leasing.

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