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The Last Up-in-the-Air Convention

There was one contemporary political convention where the outcome was uncertain. It was the Republicans in Kansas City in 1976; it was all about 16-C.

Conservative hero Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the nomination. Ford dominated the early contests. Reagan, rallying with his opposition to any agreement to hand over the Panama Canal, then began rolling up victories.

When the final primaries ended June 8, it was deadlocked with a few hundred delegates uncommitted. In ensuing weeks, the president, using the perquisites of office doled out by his young chief of staff, Dick Cheney, parlayed appointments, favors and projects to pick off a delegate or two almost daily: Reagan was dying in a war of attrition.

His brilliant campaign chief, John Sears, decided they needed a shocker to stop the hemorrhaging. It came July 26: Reagan announced he was tapping Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate, to be his vice-presidential candidate.

It worked. In football parlance it "froze the linebackers."

Delegates from Mississippi worried their hero had sold out and those from Pennsylvania and New York wondered if this was a dream ticket. The hemorrhaging stopped.

Still, as delegates arrived for the Aug. 16 opening of the Kansas City convention, Ford was in command. Sears had another trick up his sleeve: rule 16-C, the Republican Party rules on the selection of the vice-presidential candidate. Then, the vice president often was selected after the presidential candidate was picked.

Reagan proposed to require presidential candidates, in this case Ford, to announce the choice for vice president before the vote on the nominee. If Ford picked a conservative, it might produce enough defections in Pennsylvania and New York to put Reagan over the top; if he stayed in the center or to the left, Mississippi might be gone.

The lobbying was intense during the floor fight over the rules. Neither side was confident of victory. The Ford forces won 1,187 to 1,070, picking up dozens of delegates only once the outcome was clear. It probably wasn't decided by more than a handful of votes; Ford went on to be nominated, and to lose the general election.

If 16-C had gone the other way, Reagan might have squeaked through. History would have been a lot different.

(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News and a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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