Ford rates current crop of Democratic contenders for '84

Former President Gerald Ford says that if the economy is ''sick'' in 1984 there is a strong possibility that Sen. Kennedy M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts will become president.

''If the US economy is not doing well,'' Mr. Ford said in an interview here, ''I believe the odds are overwhelming that Teddy Kennedy will get the nomination.'' And, he added, ''he would be tough to beat under those circumstances.''

Ford says that Walter Mondale would not get the nomination, ''because he has to defend the Carter administration. And that's pretty hard to defend.''

He says Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio might get the nomination if the economy improves, but that Senator Glenn would have difficulty getting elected.

Asked about the possibility that he might run again if President Reagan decided to step aside in 1984, Ford said that he wasn't closing the door to that option. But, he added, party leaders would have to ask him to run. He simply would not be interested in having to go through the primary process. But a draft? Yes, he felt . . . he would be interested in running again under those circumstances.

Ford said that his most difficult moments as President were deciding how to deal with economic problems and his failure to tie down a SALT II agreement. He said that pardoning former President Nixon and deciding to react to the seizure of the merchant ship, the Mayaguez, were easy, quick decisions.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Among the Democrats, who do you think is most electable?

A lot depends on the economic status of the United States in 1984. I have no inside information. Obviously, I'm not a part of the Democratic hierarchy. But I watch the political scene and try to keep abreast of what is going on. I have this theory:

That if the US economy is sick in 1984, the Democratic Party will move toward the nomination of one of the most liberal members of the Democratic Party - like Teddy Kennedy. In fact, if the economy in the US is not doing well, I believe the odds are overwhelming that Teddy Kennedy will get the nomination. He would be tough to beat under those circumstances.

You think he would be electable?

Yes, he would be tough to beat in the election. Under those bad economic conditions in the US, the odds are he would get the nomination - and he has a good chance of getting elected. On the other hand, if the economy in 1984 is relatively good. . . .

About the way it is now?

No, it would have to be better. And then the Democratic Party will turn to a more conservative Democrat. That type, and I would not say he would be the only one, . . . would be Sen. John Glenn of Ohio. There are others, but he would be representative of a more conservative type.

How about Glenn's chances of being elected?

It would be tougher. Because if the economy is healthy, the Republicans can speak up with pride. Glenn would be a strong candidate. But the Republicans would have a better platform from which to elect their candidate.

How do you see Mondale?

Well, Fritz Mondale is a bona fide liberal. But he's got to defend the Carter administration. And that's pretty hard to defend. So I think a lot of the Democrats will say, ''We aren't going to look back and defend what happened between 1977 and 1981, we're going to nominate somebody that - a new face, someone who at least did not have a part in the Carter debacle.''

Will Reagan run again?

I haven't asked him and he hasn't told me.

But as an old politician with lots of savvy, what's your guess?

That's a hard question to answer. Because it's such a personal decision. I hesitate to speculate. My impression is that he hasn't made up his mind yet. That's his attitude. How can I be any more specific. I don't know because I don't think he knows.

What was the most difficult decision you made as President?

It is hard to say. You really have to differentiate between what you faced on the economic front on the domestic side and what you faced internationally in foreign policy.

What was the most difficult decision then on the domestic side?

This was trying to find out what we could do to straighten out our economy. We inherited serious economic problems: inflation 12 percent, for me. We tried one program when we didn't realize the recession was as serious as it turned out to be. It was hard to reverse myself in the span of three or four months and adopt a different policy in order to meet the challenge of the recession.

Then what was the hardest decision on international matters?

The hardest decision to me wasn't a decision. The most difficult problem and one of my great regrets was our inability in 1976 to get a SALT II agreement.

You were very close, weren't you?

I would say we came at least within 90 percent. If we had gotten a good SALT II agreement, and we were on the verge of it, just think how different US-Soviet relations would be today.

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