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Better decision-making by Reagan’s team - led then by John Sears - might have delivered the nomination to the Gipper. In hindsight, they should have insisted on a primary in Mississippi rather than a state convention, which would have guaranteed the 30 delegates for Reagan.

Because of the rules of the era, had Team Reagan denied Ford the nomination on the first ballot, the Californian might have well won it on a second ballot. Reagan had hidden delegate strength in the North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and other state delegations. Because of the rules, however, delegates in each states were required to vote for Ford on the first round, rather than vote their hearts, which were with Reagan. This is what kept Mr. Baker awake at night - the thought of missing on the first ballot and going to subsequent votes.

Meanwhile, Reagan’s campaign was pushing hard with the pre-convention selection of Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as Reagan’s running mate. The Reagan camp was also pushing for addresses by both Ford and Reagan before the voting began and this, too, terrified the Ford men.

They knew that the “true believers” in the arena outnumbered the “squishes” and the vision of Reagan giving a rip-roaring stemwinder and sending the convention careening into his corner was also something they wanted to prevent.

Ironically, in the millions of votes cast in the contested primaries of 1976, Reagan had defeated Ford 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent. At the GOP convention, where power politics trumped conservative principles, Ford won by the narrowest of margins, and then went on to lose in the general election by the narrowest of margins. Ford staged one of the greatest near-comebacks in American history.

The Republican Party’s nomination in 1976 did not ultimately turn on any great ideas or issues. Reagan already had the conservatives and Ford had the moderates. Instead, the outcome was determined by the seating of uncommitted delegates at White House state dinners, private meetings in the Oval Office and other goodies and accoutrements of high office, which Ford gave away to get the prize he so desperately wanted and fought for.

In the end, though, each man got what he most wanted at the time: Carter, the nomination and the presidency, Ford, the nomination and a chance to fight for the office in his own right, and Reagan, a cause and ultimately, a party and country to lead.

Craig Shirley has written two books about Ronald Reagan and is author of the new best-seller “December 1941” (Thomas Nelson, 2011). He is writing a political biography of Newt Gingrich and is president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.