When Gerald Ford officially dropped out of the presidential race he had never really entered, the assumption among most political observers was that this was his last hurrah.
But some political allies of the former President now say Mr. Ford thinks there are potential circumstances under which the party might still turn to him -- although this is conceded to be unlikely.
Said one longtime Ford associate: "Jerry is realistic. He knows [Ronald] Reagan is way out in front. He understands the mathematics are against him. But he knows he's made one point very clearly to his fellow Republicans: He's there if they need him."
Mr. Ford provided a clue to his attitude toward the GOP nomination when he was asked by a reporter (a few days before his noncandidacy announcement) whether he thought he could ever run again if he dropped out this time.
"Definitely," he said, and his answer seemed to suggest that he had every intention of remaining closely involved in presidential politics for years to come, perhaps including another bid for the nomination.
At the time, Mr. Ford seemed to be growing cool toward an avowed candidacy. But he obviously was indicating that he had no intention of becoming a nonparticipant -- a Republican elder statesman.
Now some Ford associates are telling the Monitor that the former President believes he has accomplished three objectives by his near-candidacy:
* He has made it clear to Republicans that he is ready and willing to run should a deadlock occur at the convention.
* The polls underscore his contention that he alone among Republicans would be able to beat either President Carter or Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
* By saying that his main reason for dropping out was to avoid dividing the party, he stands likely to gain support among conservative Reagan supporters in the end, should he lead the GOP ticket.
Mr. Ford also has warmed up his relationship with Reaganites by saying he will support and work for the eventual GOP nominee, whoever he may be. In the Reagan camp this is taken to mean that the former President would offer to heavily involve himself in a Reagan campaign next fall.
So for the time being, Mr. Ford leaves the fight for the nomination officially to others.
"Jerry's counted this up," elaborates one former aide. "He knows that on paper he couldn't win enough delegates to catch Reagan -- not at this late date. And he knows that other candidates aren't likely to get enough delegates to cause a deadlock. But if something happens, he would be interested. That's his position today."
What could happen?
"Lightning might strike," this source said. "The Reagan campaign might collapse. It might become clear to everyone, including the delegates, that Reagan couldn't win in the fall. All sorts of unpredictable things could happen. And Jerry is ready to step in if things do change -- and if the party needs him."