1976: The Last Time Republicans Duked It Out To The Last, Heated Minute That year was the last genuinely contested political convention. In a heated race to amass the most delegates, Ronald Reagan nearly denied Pres. Gerald Ford the presidential nomination.
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1976: The Last Time Republicans Duked It Out To The Last, Heated Minute

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1976: The Last Time Republicans Duked It Out To The Last, Heated Minute

1976: The Last Time Republicans Duked It Out To The Last, Heated Minute

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And this is For The Record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Yes, the race for the White House is about winning states, but it's really about winning delegates. In typical elections, the front runner in a primary ends up being the person who snags the magic number of delegates to clinch the nomination, so the convention ends up being pretty much a coronation ceremony. The Republican race for the nomination in 2016 is shaping up to be something different. To recap, Donald Trump is winning, and many in the party don't like that one bit. Thing is, at this point they only have a few tools to derail the Trump campaign. They're running negative ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: In many cases, I probably identify more as a Democrat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Trump wants us to think he's Mr. tell-it-like-it-is. But he has a record, and it's very liberal.

MARTIN: His opponents are criticizing him, especially this weekend as violence broke out at Trump rallies. Here's Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KASICH: Donald Trump has created a toxic environment.

MARTIN: But as Trump keeps winning, his opponents in the GOP are hoping his challengers - Kasich and Sens. Cruz and Rubio - can just keep chipping away at his delegate count. That's the last tool in their box, and it'll make the Republican convention this year a heck of a lot more interesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's a political junkies dream and a political party's nightmare - a brokered or, more accurately, contested convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good evening. We could see a contested convention come July -

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: If Trump loses both Florida and Ohio on March 15, chances are we're headed to that contested convention. Let me show you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: As Ted Cruz warns, a contested convention spells disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Or we're headed for contested convention, something that hasn't happened in a long time.

MARTIN: For the record today, the last time it all came down to the convention, the Republicans in Kansas City - President Gerald Ford against his challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. The year was 1976.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANN COMPTON: I'm Ann Compton. In 1976, I was a relatively young White House correspondent for ABC Network News. The '76 convention for the Republicans was a real battle. The party didn't know quite what to do with an incumbent president who hadn't been elected but had been appointed president and a popular California governor who had tried to run before and was amassing huge numbers of delegates. The convention meant the climax to a party that had a kind of split personality.

STEPHEN HESS: In 1976, I was chosen to be the editor in chief of the Republican platform.

MARTIN: Stephen Hess was a Ford man. He recalls the months leading up to the convention.

HESS: If I remember correctly the president, Gerald Ford, was winning, winning, winning from New Hampshire on and then suddenly, he hit a block in North Carolina and Governor Reagan started to win, win, win. So suddenly, they came into the convention almost tied.

MARTIN: Our next guide through this historical event is John Sears.

JOHN SEARS: Gee, that was a long time ago. Well, I was Ronald Reagan's campaign manager in 1976. We were the outsiders in that race.

MARTIN: Did you relish that label?

SEARS: Well, yeah because even then - you know, people talk about how upset people are with Washington, but they were back then, too, especially coming on the heels of the Watergate. There was a great deal of anti-Washington feeling.

MARTIN: So by the time the convention rolled around, Stephen Hess says -

HESS: They came to Kansas City ready to brawl.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: It was a fight for each and every delegate. Gerald Ford was the sitting president, which meant he could sweeten the deals. Here's Stephen Hess, who was for Ford.

HESS: I don't mean that he was quickly handing out jobs. Maybe there were in some cases jobs, but I certainly didn't know about them. But he certainly was handing out the goodies of why don't you come over and spend an evening at the White House, or I'm flying out your way, would you like to ride on Air Force One with me?

COMPTON: I recall being behind the scenes in a Ford campaign kind of boiler room when the campaign delegate counters led by Jim Baker - later secretary of state - were befuddled by the delegates who were asking for favors, including one, a delegate from New York, who wanted a federal judgeship for his brother, a serious request in return for his vote for Gerald Ford. He didn't get it.

SEARS: The president had more power than we did.

MARTIN: John Sears with the Reagan camp.

SEARS: So we turned, and the only thing we had was the possibility of appointing a vice president, so we took that and announced it beforehand.

HESS: And this is where I really think the Reagan people defeated themselves. They thought they were too clever by half, and they - Reagan announced that he was going to name Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, a moderate or liberal even, to be his running mate. They must have thought this was a very clever way of attracting liberals and centrists in the party. And what it did, of course, was backfire. People like Jesse Helms of North Carolina were furious. And so it worked against him, and then they compounded their errors.

MARTIN: After announcing a running mate, which in and of itself was unusual to say the least, the Reagan campaign then proposed a rule change requiring that Gerald Ford name his VP pick, too. And the Republican fight to retain the presidency, which had become a fight over the nomination, now boiled down to a fight over a rule change, yet another fault line in the GOP of 1976. Ann Compton was reporting from the convention floor.

COMPTON: There were moments of incredible frustration and yes, even physical altercations on the floor of the convention. It was a huge - just a traffic jam of people on the floor. But I happened to be standing right next to the New York delegation where Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and his New York delegation, which - they were all supporting Jerry Ford. Rockefeller was so angry. Somebody yanked the New York delegation telephone off its stand and out of its moorings, trashed it right there on the convention floor in fury.

MARTIN: We actually have some sound of that. This is from a CBS news report. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON ROCKEFELLER: Some guy came charging over and tore out my phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Why?

ROCKEFELLER: Yeah, he dropped the poor phone, and he also damaged my other phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And what did he say?

ROCKEFELLER: He was from Reagan - he was a Reagan man.

COMPTON: There were no two-way radios or cell phones or ways to text people. That telephone was Nelson Rockefeller's lifeline to the command headquarters. This is how they coordinated. It was so crowded on the convention floor you couldn't even walk over to another delegation. So that shows just the extent to which tempers flared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Ann Compton.

COMPTON: Sam, there are not many signs here on the floor of peacemaking among these shouting delegates, although they -

MARTIN: There were debates and handshakes and deals, and then it all hinged on the state of Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Mississippi, 13 votes.

MARTIN: Here's Reagan campaign manager John Sears.

SEARS: Had Mississippi stayed with us instead of going as a block to Ford on the procedural question that we raised, I think we might have been nominated. But it was that close.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Let's see if it passes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Clarke Reed, the Mississippi chairman, reflecting the problems they've been having this evening, trying to agree what to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Now if the delegates will please take their seats and clear the aisles. We are now ready to begin the very important business of nominating the next president of the United States.

COMPTON: Jerry Ford still got by a - just an eyelash margin, enough votes to win the nomination on the first ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GERALD FORD: Mr. Chairman, delegates and alternates to this Republican convention, I am honored by your nomination and I accept it.

(APPLAUSE)

COMPTON: And then of course, in his generosity - he was a generous and kind person - they invited Ronald Reagan to come up and address the convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: May I just say some words?

(APPLAUSE)

HESS: The marvelous little speech which pretty much declared him as the next Republican candidate. And in that speech he praised the Republican platform as a banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale pastel shades and meaning that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: I believe the Republican Party has a platform that is a banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale pastel shades.

(APPLAUSE)

COMPTON: The Ford team was so relieved to have it resolved, to know that he would get his first and only chance to run a full campaign for president that the idea of letting Ronald Reagan unite the party was incredibly appealing. And if he was more poetic than the more prosaic Gerald Ford, so be it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: We must go forth from here united, determined. And what a great general said a few years ago is true; there is no substitute for victory. Mr. President.

(APPLAUSE)

COMPTON: The delegates sitting in their chairs on the floor loved it.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Gerald Ford had won. However, he went on to lose in the general election to the Democrat Jimmy Carter. As for Ronald Reagan, he may have lost the nomination but he was the man who would go on to define the Republican Party for a generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) California, here I come right back where I started from, where bowers and flowers bloom in the sun. Each morning at dawning birdies singing everything. A sun-kissed miss said, don't be late. That's why I can hardly wait. So open up your golden gates, California, here I come.

MARTIN: For the record today, we heard from Stephen Hess, who supported Gerald Ford in 1976. We also heard from former ABC News correspondent Ann Compton and Ronald Reagan campaign's manager, John Sears.

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