Gerald Ford's decision not to run helps to clarify the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He had temporarily confused matters by belatedly sounding like a candidate again. Suddenly there appeared the possibility of a GOP added starter somewhere in the political spectrum between Bush and Anderson and overlapping both. Now the choice is clearer between Anderson as the maverick moderate and the remaining clump of candidates -- Bush, Reagan, Crane -- who have more in common with each other than they do with him.
It was well that Mr. Ford, no matter what his decision, made it without further public temporizing. The suspense was no help to anybody. He may have decided as he did not only for his main stated reason of not dividing the party but on the basis of the delegate arithmetic which suggested he would have to run a flawless campaign to catch up now. And he appears to have been undercut by former candidate Connally's reported efforts to keep the governors of Texas and Ohio from supporting him. But, whatever the reasoning, and whatever might have been said at one time for a Ford candidacy, the withdrawal now does seem positive for a party that more and more scents the possibility of victory in the fall.
A Ford candidacy might well have caused the ideological supporters of his former foe, Ronald Reagan, to pull the wagons in a circle, fostering the polarization Mr. Ford wants to avoid. Without him in the race, the Reagan pragmatism may have more of a chance to display itself, reaching beyond hard-liners to the broader base a candidate for either major party ultimately needs.
At the same time, votes that Ford might have taken from Bush or Anderson are up for grabs again. Here again the question is whether a candidate can persuade Republicans he has the qualities to reach beyond party lines to come out ahead in a general election.
Both Bush and Anderson are running on the claim that they can reach out. They both espouse fiscal conservatism. The basic difference, apart from matters of personal style and background, is that Bush is nearer the other Republican candidates on most issues than Anderson is.
On taxes, for example, Anderson would not have a tax cut -- except as made possible by his 50-cent gas tax proposal -- until the budget is balanced. Bush calls for a $20 billion "supply-side" cut. Reagan and Crane advocate across-the-board cuts.
Yet the contracts are not wholly consistent. anderson is the loner favoring gun control. Bush is the loner favoring draft registration. Neither Anderson nor Bush favors a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Reagan favors an amendment if legislative action fails. Crane has sponsored such an amendment.
If Mr. Ford has simplified the race by forgoing it -- as has the almost simultaneous dropping out of his old running mate, Senator Dole -- voters still do not have a simple task. Not if they conscientiously want to pick and choose instead of merely trying to keep ahead of the pollsters.