Listen to what Gerald Ford is saying of late and you could well come to this conclusion: If the political climate is right in 1984 he might once again seek the presidency.
No, he won't take on Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan on his own would have to decide that four years was all he wanted. Also, the Reagan administration would have to have fared at least moderately well for Ford to take his chances once again.
Ford would not have any part of a race where a Republican president had failed and the voters seemed unalterably bent on having a Democrat in the White House.
But if the Republican nomination were open -- and worth something -- then Ford just might jump in. A silly forecast? His old political cohort, John Rhodes , doesn't think so. Rhodes says that Ford at 70 in 1984 wouldn't be too old -- and that Ford can thank Reagan for opening up the presidency to older candidates. Rhodes thinks that Ford just might decide to seek the second term he was denied in 1976.
Before 1980, Ford and Reagan were rivals, and not always so friendly either. Ford was incensed that Reagan challenged him for the nomination in 1976. Ford felt that in fighting off Reagan he was weakened politically and therefore made vulnerable to defeat by Carter in the general election.
But one of the endearing qualities of Gerald Ford is that he doesn't hold personal animosities. He campaigned for Reagan with vigor and enthusiasm in 1980 . And the two old warhorses came out of that race as friends. ''We have a good rapport,'' said Ford of the new relationship. Reagan also speaks warmly of his old antagonist.
In fact, Reagan came very close to accepting Ford as his running mate. And he did end up by taking George Bush, recommended by Ford.
So there could be circumstances under which Reagan might endorse Ford as his successor, an endorsement that Ford would doubtless want as a prerequisite for running.
But Ford would run as a Ford -- not as a Reagan. And these days he is underscoring his differences with Reagan, even while stressing his friendship and agreement in principle with him.
Ford says that he simply does not buy the Roth-Kemp variety of supply-side economics. ''Economic recovery,'' he told interviewer Dotson Rader of Parade magazine in early April, ''is achievable with a pragmatic economic policy. We did it during my years in the White House. His (Reagan's) program is a gamble. It may not work. I hope it does.''
Ford believes in the old-fashioned GOP approach to the economy. He prefers cutting expenditures first and then tailoring tax cuts to the spending trims.
Thus, in October 1980 Ford said in an interview that he was in favor of Reagan's intention ''to reduce the rate of growth of federal spending.''
But he said he had ''some reservations'' about the phasing in of tax cuts over a three-year period, particularly ''those scheduled for the second and third year.'' He said it was ''premature'' to set such a phasing into place until the spending cuts were in hand. This was an expression of old-fashioned conservative philosophy. And that's where Ford still stands today.
So Ford might well be in a position to say to the public as he is saying today, ''I agree with Reagan's thrust'' on the economy -- meaning Reagan's emphasis on reducing the size of government and government spending. But Ford could go on and say that he would put more emphasis on spending cuts than Reagan did. His appeal would be, ''Let's get back to basics,'' and it would be made in a way that would keep Reagan on his side.
In such a situation, Ford would fare best if the voters, while not too displeased with the Reagan administration, were looking for something besides supply-side economics as an answer to their economic problems -- but something that still had a conservative flavor.
In that kind of a climate, Ford might be just what the country wanted.