The interesting question is not so much whether Ronald Reagan can be elected president as whether Republican Ronald Reagan can be. For a long time now Republican candidates have been running away from their party, acknowledging the affiliation if pressed but avoiding the mention of it on billboards and in campaign literature.
This personal-type candidacy started back in the '60s. Richard Nixon ran that way. So did Gerald Ford. And so did countless other Republicans seeking office at every level of government. The party was shrinking. Why tie oneself to that diminishing voter base?That was the rationale.
But now after some 20 years of what GOP national chairman Bill Brock calls the "cult of personality" among Republican candidates there is a decided change. Says Mr. Brock:
"The Republican Party is on the rise and Republicans everywhere now are proud of it. We were down to about 20 percent a few years ago -- now we're up to about 30 percent of the electorate. The Democrats only have about 40 percent. And they are the ones today who are running away from their party -- much more than the Republicans."
One exception is Sen. Charles McC. Mathias who continues to keep his Republican identification as much a secret as he possibly can. Mr. Mathias says without enthusiasm that he will vote for Reagan -- but he still reaches out hard for Democratic votes by making it clear that he doesn't take party ties too seriously.
But Mr. Reagan is, indeed, proudly carrying the Republican banner as he seeks to unhorse the President. It is a surprising development when one considers that only a few years ago a number of political observers were predicting that the Grand Old Party was on its way out.
This willingness of Republicans to own up to being Republicans signals, too, the end of The Watergate-impact period during which the stain of the Nixon disgrace rubbed off on the party and hence on those who identified themselves closely with it.
For Mr. Reagan this open avowal of close party ties has benefits and risks.
* Obviously, hard-core Republicans, most of whom are conservatives, will work particularly hard and certainly get out and vote for a man who expresses such party loyalty.
* But if in the end the President is able to persuade Democrats -- particularly the liberal Democrats who now are looking favorably on the Anderson candidacy -- to return to the fold, he obviously will have a bigger base of hard-core party support than Reagan's.
Mr. Brock himself is happy over the "coming home" of Republicans. He contends not only that this development helps to strengthen the party but that the party today "stands for something" which helps Republican candidates who state their party ties. "We offer a clear set of objectives," he says.
This comment about the Republican Party's "clarity" is debatable. But it seems relatively true. Reagan and Ford seem much closer in expressing their goals (with differences on how tax cuts should be made) than do Carter and Kennedy.
Of course Mr. Brock, like most politicians, wants it both ways: He underscores the clarity of the party's image today while asserting that the party must and does offer a "big tent" to take care of voters who may differ on some of the issues.
What seems undisputed, however, is the Brock impact on the party buildup: Republican leaders, throughout the US as well as in Washington, are quick to credit the chairman with doing an outstanding job in presiding over and helping to bring about the party's rather spectacular comeback.
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan the Republican sits astride his Republican mount and predicts the coming of a Republican president. And he may be right.
But, should that happen, will a highly visible Republican in the presidency -- as opposed to a president who just happens to be a Republican -- be served or damaged by his show of partisanship? Will it perhaps make it even more difficult for him to deal with a Congress which still seems likely to be Democratic-controlled? The question is one that only a President Reagan could, in time, answer.