PRIMARY RACES; Still several turns beofre stretch run; Reagan not home free yet, say GOP analysts
Even as Ronald Reagan's bandwagon kept rolling in South Carolina this word was being passed along by GOP political leaders: It would be a mistake to conclude that the race for the Republican presidential nomination is nearing and end.
Monitor checks with GOP chieftains in all geographical regions, as well as here in Washington, showed that even among Mr. Reagan's supporters the tough-minded political analysts were saying that this is still a year when anything could happen.
The savants see these important elements in a contest which has first seen George Bush pull out in front and then fade a bit, then Ronald Reagan forge forward and build momentum, and them John Anderson sparkle impressively in New England and show promise of making a mark later on:
* They concede that Mr. Reagan may be building momentum which will soon make him unstoppable. But they point out that President Ford built up that big primary-win lead over Mr. Reagan in 1976 -- only to it almost get away when the California surged later on.
* They look at Mr. Ford in the wings and says that, while A Ford candidacy would be difficult to mount at this late date, it still could be successfully done.
A veteran politician from the midwest voiced what many other leaders now are saying: "Remember that Ford came within an eyelash of beating Carter. That, together with being a former president, gives him an edge.
"Everyone knows him. And a lot of Americans like Jerry Ford, the man. So don't count out this likable guy still making it to the nomination if he decides to run."
Mr. Ford will be meeting with reporters at breakfast on Thursday, when it is expected that he will divulge his views on entering the race.
* GOP leaders are not counting George Bush out yet, despite his poor showings in both New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Said one leader whose views were shared by others: "We'll soon remember Bush's wins in Iowa, Puerto Rico, and Massachusetts if he can put together another impressive victory somewhat along the way."
Mr. Bush is expressing hopes of doing well in Tuesday's Florida primary, and a new poll shows him running neck and neck with Mr. Reagan there.
* These leaders do see a winnowing out of candidates continuing, following Sen. Howard H. Baker's withdrawal last week.
John B. Connally announced March 9 he was dropping out of the race.
Others see Illinois Rep. Philip M. Crane dropping out son if he doesn't start to score. And Sen. robert Dole, of course, has taken himself pretty much out of the picture.
* But most top Republicans are strongly cautioning against conceding the nomination to Ronald Reagan or anyone else at this point. Other candidates could forge to the front, at least temporarily, in subsequent primaries, they say.