The race for the Republican presidential nomination has reached the crucial point. After viewing results from primaries in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, most political observers conclude that Ronald Reagan is poised to take the prize unless some rival steps in quickly to snatch it from him.
Meanwhile, new polls show that Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois seems ready to jolt former California Governor Reagan in next week's Illinois primary.
And Gerald Ford may any day now launch what clearly would be a stop-Reagan effort.
George Bush, overwhelmed by Reagan landslides in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, remains a factor in the race. But Mr. Bush needs some victories soon or his campaign will slip to the place where he will be forced to follow Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. and John B. Connally out of the contest.
The big question being mulled by politicians and political pundits at this moment is: If Mr. Ford decides to run, can he win?
Should the former President announce before March 14 (in time to file for entry into the Nebraska primary), he could enter 14 primaries with a potential 617 delegates. A total of 998 is needed to win the nomination at the convention.
Should Mr. Ford miss the Nebraska primary, which seems likely, he could well be entered in 13 primaries that select 592 delegates. But this would mean that he would miss 23 of the 36 GOP primaries.
So Mr. Ford would need help from the other candidates -- from Messrs. Anderson and Bush -- if he is going to take the nomination away from Mr. Reagan.
At this point, both Mr. Anderson and Mr. Bush are saying quite firmly that they are seeking the nomination for themselves and have no intention of throwing their support to the former President.
In fact, Mr. Anderson says that "after winning Illinois," he will phone "my old friend Jerry Ford" and ask him for his support.
Two new polls in Illinois show a big upward Anderson surge in his home state. The Chicago Sun-Times poll gives Mr. Anderson 39 percent, Mr. Reagan 30 percent, and Mr. Bush 15 percent. And the Chicago Tribune Poll shows Mr. Anderson with 33 percent, Mr. Reagan with 31, and Mr. Bush with 20.
Up until quite recently Mr. Bush was leading both of these polls.
Some observers in Illinois see Mr. Anderson winning by an impressive margin by way of a big crossover vote from liberal Democrats who will choose to back Mr. Anderson over Sen. Edward M. Kennedy or President Carter.
Mr. Anderson also seems likely to benefit from the crossover vote in the Wisconsin primary on April 1. Some Kennedy aides now are saying the Mar. Anderson is cutting substantially into the senator's vote.
Much political conversation and speculation now centers on the Ford decision. One close associate of Mr. Ford provided this assessment to the Monitor March 12 :
"I think Ford is going to run. At least, he was leaning that way yesterday when I was with him.
"I think the decision will come right after the Illinois primary, though it could come sooner.
"The only thing that might deter Ford would be if Bush wins in Illinois. That would put Ford right back in the holding position he was in before the New Hampshire primary. That is, Ford isn't going to jump in as long as he feels that his old friend, Bush, has a good chance of getting the nomination.
"But if Reagan wins again, Ford will go, I think. Also if Anderson wins, Ford will run. He doesn't think Anderson has the staying power to defeat Reagan."