September 24, 1979 12:00 PM

Why put us all on a stage together,” asked Sen. Howard Baker’s wife, Joy, with a resigned smile, observing the large crowd gathered on the broad Virginia lawn, “when Liz naturally upstages us all?”

The answer, of course, is that in presidential politics, it is better to be upstaged by Elizabeth Taylor than not to be onstage at all. The event was a Republican fund raiser and an opportunity to meet the party’s ranking White House hopefuls. It was also Liz’s debut as a national political party giver—which is clearly where it succeeded.

Only two active candidates showed up—Howard Baker and the predictable Harold Stassen—but four others sent stand-ins: Nancy Reagan, Arlene Crane, Barbara Bush and Robin Dole, the senator’s daughter. That mattered not at ail to the 3,700 who flocked (at $25 a head) to the 3,000-acre farm in rural Atoka that Taylor shares with her sixth husband, Sen. John Warner. Some party faithful came for the politics, to be sure, and others to inspect the 163-year-old farmhouse (they had to settle for peeking through the windows; the Warners put it off limits). But most of the eyes—and most of the comments—were on Liz.

“She’s so beautiful, I’ve been in love with her since I was 14,” gushed one middle-aged man over a paper plate of barbecued chicken, baked beans and cole slaw. “Now we’re all used to her,” said a neighbor. “At first people couldn’t take their eyes off her. They’d say, ‘She’s not as pretty as I thought she’d be,’ but she was always the prettiest woman in the room.”

Others, less kindly, noted the lavish blue eye shadow and thickened figure—despite a 25-pound weight loss this summer. “I thought she’d look more sophisticated,” snipped one visitor from Arlington, “but she looks like someone from Atoka.”

Liz clearly outdazzled the other political femmes with a Hollywood get-up of striped caftan-type blouse and heavy gold necklace that outlined her Cleopatra cleavage. She was also way ahead in the politicking. While Nancy Reagan roamed the grounds trailed by a few questioners and the other women stayed mostly out of sight prior to speech time, Liz plunged into the crowd for handshakes, photographs and point-blank attention. Afterward she do-si-doed through several rounds of square dancing with John. “Give us a little more,” egged the photographers, and she was quick to oblige. “If Liz upstages anyone,” said Nancy Reagan forgivingly, “it’s not intentional. She and I go back millions of years.”

Warner stayed close to Liz throughout the four-hour party. “It’s a good thing to focus on the political wife,” he explained. “After all, she takes the same bumpy rides and has to eat the same chicken as her husband.”

Liz may be ready to share in the rewards as well as the suffering. “I want to run for mayor of Atoka,” she confessed. “I think I’d need the support of 25 people.” “You’re wrong,” John interrupted with a nudge. “There are only five people in Atoka and they all work for us.”

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