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In 1974 I was a young mother working at the Democratic Party of New Mexico as its Executive Director. Bruce King was governor.
One day in the early fall, a young man named Tim Kraft came through the door. He was high energy. We made small talk and then he said, “I think you should buy a $10 ticket to a luncheon with the governor of Georgia.”
I said, “Why would I do that?”
He replied with enthusiasm, “His name is Jimmy Carter, and he’s going to run for president.”
That was Jimmy Carter’s first visit to New Mexico. He and Gov. King had met as first-time governors at the Democratic Governors Association and became friends.
Jimmy Carter began thinking about running for president soon after he was sworn in as governor of Georgia in 1971. According to his biographer Kai Bird, who wrote “The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter,” Carter began trying to position himself for vice-presidential consideration for the 1972 Democratic ticket. Luckily, that didn’t happen. 1972 was a disaster for Democrats in the Nixon vs. McGovern race. McGovern only prevailed in the District of Columbia and Massachusetts.
Carter began to look toward 1976. In conversations with small groups and close associates he tested the waters. He was surrounded by a smart, intuitive staff, including a young man named Hamilton Jordan who believed Carter could win even in a crowded field.
Most political pundits and newspapers gave Carter little attention. In an early poll in the crowded field, candidates, including former Sen. Fred Harris, Jimmy Carter tied for 12th. The field also included U.S. Sen. Morris Udall, D-AZ, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, D-WA, Gov. Jerry Brown of California, and Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.
Even Carter’s friend Governor King didn’t give him much of a chance. In his book, “Cowboy in the Roundhouse,” he describes a conversation with Carter, who asked him what he would run for next. King said he would likely just go back to his ranch. Carter on the other hand announced he would start by running for president. King suggested he try for vice president. Then King threw his support to Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington state who was the darling of Democratic conservatives. King thought Jackson was a “lead pipe cinch” as Jackson’s wife was a native New Mexican, and he had the backing of retired Sen. Clinton P. Anderson.
Alice King, on the other hand, agreed to raise the $5,000 to help Carter qualify in New Mexico. It was that decision that gave Carter joking rights for years – always reminding Bruce that Alice was smarter than he was.
In hindsight, what really catapulted Carter, a virtually unknown peanut farmer from Georgia to the Presidency? Likely lots of factors: an early decision, hard work, extensive travel, a nation exhausted after Vietnam and Watergate, and a smart, dedicated staff. His team is credited with understanding the 1976 revised caucus primary system better than other candidates. Their strategy of getting delegates in almost every state paid off. Carter won the convention overwhelmingly.
Former Sen. Harris, now a New Mexico resident for 40 years, had a simpler view: “I always thought that when he made his first inaugural speech as governor of Georgia and declared “The time for racial discrimination is over,” that showed the world what kind of courageous and principled man he was and eventually got him nominated and elected president.”
That description, “courageous and principled,” has proven to be true throughout Carter’s life. Looking back, I’m grateful I bought a $10 ticket to see the future president.