By Dolly Langdon
Updated April 18, 1983 12:00 PM

It wasn’t much of a signal, but for ardent Reagan-watchers it was the best tip yet. In January the nation’s Chief Rancher sent his Western sidekick, Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, to ride herd on the Republican National Committee. In so doing, the President gave one of his clearest indications to date that he intends to run for a second term. The two men share the same values, and a friendship which goes back almost two decades. Laxalt, 60, coordinated both of Reagan’s presidential campaigns, in 1976 and 1980. Now, as general chairman of the RNC—a specially created part-time post that allows him to remain in the Senate—he is positioned to organize the third. “I think I know the President well enough to know he’s not going to walk away with the job undone,” says Laxalt. Reagan, 72, seemed to confirm that view recently when he declared four years insufficient to implement meaningful change.

Since Reagan’s inauguration, Laxalt has assumed the role of the President’s “Minister Without Portfolio” in the Senate. Popular with colleagues of both parties, he has become a trusted conduit between Congress and the Oval Office. His willingness to deliver bad news along with good makes him a godsend to Reagan’s staff. “The President values Paul’s judgment,” says an aide, “and Paul can talk to him in a way the rest of us can’t.”

Laxalt’s detractors claim that his friendship with Reagan obscures the fact that his eight years in the Senate have been relatively undistinguished. He rarely speaks or proposes new legislation. Still, he is credited with having helped to sway Reagan toward pragmatism on such major issues as the need for modest defense cuts and a jobs bill.

The friendship began in 1964 at a fund raiser for Barry Goldwater. Two years later both Reagan and Laxalt were elected Governors of their neighboring states, and they frequently visited back and forth between Sacramento and Carson City. After his election to the Senate in 1974, Laxalt became an unofficial advance man, selling Reagan as a future President to skeptics on the Hill. Over the years the bond has held through personal and political crises. It was Laxalt who comforted Nancy Reagan at the hospital after the 1981 assassination attempt. “All I can tell you,” Reagan says, “is that Paul Laxalt is a kind man, of unquestionable honesty. He has a friend because he is a friend.”

In his Washington career, Laxalt has largely overcome the negative publicity that marred his term as Governor of Nevada (1966-70). By virtue of his office, he exerted powerful influence over the state’s gambling industry. Rumors about his favors to casino owners—though never proven—left a residue of suspicion.

When Howard Hughes went on a buying binge for Las Vegas casinos in 1967, Laxalt stretched state regulations to assist the reclusive millionaire. Though he denies accepting political contributions from Hughes, Laxalt does concede that his former law firm received substantial legal fees from Hughes company officials. As Governor, Laxalt also dealt directly with Teamster officials when the giant union was involved in gambling investments. Among his contacts were the late Jimmy Hoffa and Teamster consultant Allen M. Dorfman, who was slain in Chicago recently after being convicted of attempting to bribe the since defeated Nevada Sen. Howard Cannon.

After Laxalt left the governorship in 1970, he lobbied President Nixon for a reduction of Hoffa’s prison term. “To some extent Hoffa was a political prisoner,” says Laxalt. “I just decided to write the President a letter.” Laxalt then further risked his political reputation by opening a hotel-casino in Carson City with his brother, Peter. The business was ultimately sold at a loss.

Laxalt’s personal life also has been troubled at times. His first marriage, to Jackie Ross, ended in divorce after 25 years, and their six children, now aged 25 to 32, were rebellious teens, often resentful of their father’s prominence as Governor. “I screwed up my priorities and thought my job was more important than my kids,” he says. In 1976 Laxalt married his secretary, Carol Wilson, now 40, and his relationship with his children has healed. Perhaps sensitized by his experiences, Laxalt has backed away from the conservative “social agenda,” which calls for strict legislation on such issues as abortion and homosexuality. “I’m not going to sit and moralize and tell others what they should do,” he says.

In his new job at the RNC, Laxalt will coordinate all election efforts of his party. Some Washington politicos see his heightened visibility as a good chance to boost himself as well. Some speculate that Laxalt might even be designated as presidential candidate by his old friend if the President decides to retire at the end of his current term. Laxalt could still be dogged by the unsubstantiated allegations from his past, however, as in 1980, when he was under consideration as a possible running mate for Reagan. “It’s unfortunate,” says a Republican political strategist, “because I don’t really think there’s much to it.” Some of Laxalt’s friends doubt whether the issue will arise again, because they don’t see in him the burning ambition necessary to run for the Presidency. “He doesn’t have the ego that says, ‘Oh, the world can’t run without me,’ ” says Sen. Jake Garn (R.-Utah). And Paul Laxalt himself insists he is in harness, not a contender. “I just don’t think about that,” he says with a shrug. “I’m a one-President horse.”