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Will Ford tee off in presidential tourney?

There he sits -- solid, attractive, unpretentious; the former President who pardoned a president and who might be president again: Jerry Ford. Not one of the newsmen at the breakfast table doesn't like him.

He knows them by nicknames -- Bill, Dick, Mark -- the sign of the politician who somehow unified the discordant republicans in the House for years when he was minority leader.

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He was leader because they all liked him, not particularly for his intellectual power. Everybody like Jerry.

Everybody who knows Jerry Ford, it appears, likes him.

Today he is dressed in a dark suit, with vest, for he is bound on a visit to the White House to say Hello. Jerry will greet Jimmy. Then he will go out and assail Jimmy's administration, which he regards as a disaster.

Won't this be somewhat awkward? Former President Ford stops at the question in genuince surprise. He hadn't thought of it. Politicians assail other politicians. It's not personal, though Mr. Ford specifically attacks the White House leadership as weak and vacillating on both the domestic and international fronts.

The big question today is, will Jerry decide to seek the Republican presidential nomination? In the opinion polls of the moment, Gerald R. Ford is the only Republican who can take the Republican nomination from Ronald Reagan, and the only Republican who can beat President Carter in the November general election.

For Mr. Ford, there is the choice: on the one hand, comfortable retirement, relaxation, the camaraderie of golf; or the strife of politics and the possible exhilaration of power.

There is also the consideration that he might be of some service to the nation. The latter feeling seems real; he appears genuinely appalled at the condition of the economy, declares Mr. Carter has no plan, believes that the election will turn on the bread-and-butter issues.

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What will he do? He won't make his decision, he says, until he had gone home and talked with Betty. Other politicians talks this way, but there is an element of simplicity in Jerry Ford that makes it seem real.

There is practically nothing new in what Mr. Ford says, only the emphasis. In the old days the elite leaders at conventions weighed the personally known candidates and awarded the nomination -- for better or worse. Now it is polls and mathematics: 37 primaries pledge delegates; if Mr. Ford enters now, it will already be almost too late.

There is the immediate Illinois primary next Tuesday: Will dark horse John B. Anderson win the Republican contest over Mr. Reagan? In that case, is there reason for a race by Mr. Ford, whose primary mission now seems to be to save the party from "unelectable" Mr. Reagan?

He says he will support the party candidate in any case. Nobody doubted it. His reputation as GOP House leader was for regularity, not initiatives.

Everybody leaves the breakfast chatting and cheerful as they did after Ford White house press conferences. Yes, he says, he is glad he pardoned Richard Nixon; if he hadn't, the trial would have run on for four to six years.

And 1980?

"Nineteen-eighty," he says thoughtfully, rubbing his hands, "is probably the most volatile political year in the history of the country -- certainly in this century."


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