1976: Reagan Takes on a GOP Incumbent
In 1976, Ronald Reagan engaged in a brutal primary campaign against President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, giving the incumbent one of the toughest primary challenges in history. Coming into the convention held in Kansas City, Ford held only a slight winning margin in the necessary delegate count to win on a first ballot and both Republican rivals arrived three days before the balloting began to rally added support.
But of course, times were brutal in themselves for the nation. Ford was named vice president by then-President Richard Nixon while the Republican White House was besieged with the Watergate scandal and investigation that finally led to Nixon's humiliating resignation and Ford's swearing in as president.
Meanwhile, Democrat Jimmy Carter, a relatively-unknown Georgia governor, was on a roll. Following the June 8 primary, Carter had locked up the nomination and delegates around the country were already solidly behind him -- determined to put the legacy of the Nixon White House behind.
1976 Republican National Convention. (left to right: Senator Dole; Nancy Reagan; Ronald Reagan; President Ford; V.P. Rockefeller; Susan Ford and Mrs. Ford).
Courtesy the Ford Presidential Library
Ford backers accused Reagan, a former California governor, of being inexperienced and a war monger. Reagan backers pointed to their candidate's proven ability to fetch votes, his status as a "Washington outsider," and his appeal to conservative Democrats at the ballot box.
The combating divisions continued their scrap on the convention floor, where Reagan forces unsuccessfully attempted to upset the nominating rules. President Ford ultimately prevailed, but only after a struggle that vexed and split the party.
After accepting the Republican nomination in Kansas City, Mr. Ford extended a peace offering to his defeated opponent. He invited Mr. Reagan to address the convention. And the delegates gave Mr. Reagan a thunderous reception that all but eclipsed the president's.
Ford lost to Carter in the 1976 election. Reagan returned to take the White House in 1980 and served for two terms.