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REPUBLICANS: Everyone’s Second Choice

3 minute read

“There’s going to be a battle royal,” predicted one Republican official nine weeks ago when Mary Louise Smith quit as the G.O.P.’s national chairman. A wise forecast: the Republicans promptly began a raucous free-for-all—in the best brawling style of the Democrats—to decide who should get the job. Last week 161 members of the National Committee finally convened in Washington’s Hilton Hotel and, after three ballots, settled on a compromise candidate: former U.S. Senator William Brock III of Tennessee.

As the fray developed, President Ford’s choice was his efficient and low-keyed campaign manager, James Baker of Texas. Early in January, Ford endorsed Baker, but he was opposed by Ronald Reagan, and John Connally was indifferent. Baker had some other problems as well. Word got out that he had $1.8 million left in the campaign kitty last fall and failed to spend it during Ford’s come-from-behind stretch drive.

That money could have paid for advertising in Hawaii and Ohio, where a switch of some 18,000 votes would have given Ford a full term in the White House. In his defense, Baker claimed that the funds had been allocated to the state chairmen, who failed to use all of them. Still, a political realist, Baker dropped out of the race early last week. Said he: “I didn’t have the fire in my gut to go through with it.”

That left Utah National Committeeman Richard Richards, Reagan’s man, to fight strenuously to the end for the job. To woo the moderates, Richards downplayed his Reagan connection by promising, if elected, to “favor any candidate of any political philosophy.”

But his lack of national recognition handicapped him, as did his concession to committee members: “I’m a technician.” Managed by longtime Reagan Operative Lyn Nofziger, Richards got only 48 out of the 81 votes required to win on the first two ballots—coming in second both times—but he could not build on his conservative base.

Brock engineered his victory by presenting himself as everyone’s second choice. He was plagued by a loser’s image after James Sasser, a former chairman of Tennessee’s Democratic Party, took away his Senate seat in November. But the handsome Brock, heir to a candy making fortune, is a good nuts-and-bolts organizer who is conservative enough for Reagan’s people though he backed Ford for the presidency last year. He has opposed foreign aid and handgun licensing, but did vote with the liberals against no-knock legislation.

Warring Wings. Early on, Brock helped defuse fears that he would use the chairmanship as a launching pad for a try at becoming Governor of Tennessee in 1978. Promising to serve as party leader through 1980, Brock maintained: “You can’t take this job if you are interested in your own candidacy.” Even so, only Baker’s withdrawal sealed the victory for Brock. The winner promptly declared that he would strive to bridge the ideological split between the two warring wings of the Republicans. He got some strong support from Richards, who confessed that he had been getting ready to vote for the Tennessean himself. Added Nofziger: “We have no problems with Brock. He’s a good conservative, and we’ll work hard with him.”

The new chairman promised to try to rebuild the G.O.P. from “the bottom up” —a vow often made, and forgotten, by Republicans—as the party starts to get ready for the 1978 elections.

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