There are some pitfalls with caucus politics

Newswatch ... ON POLITICS

February 25, 1992|By JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

At the Democratic caucus in Kittery, Maine, the other night 152 voters showed up. John Allen, the town party chairman, estimated that at least one-fourth of them were newcomers who registered on the spot, then split 2-to-1 for Jerry Brown over Paul Tsongas.

The pattern was similar in portland and its suburbs and other seacoast communities in the southern part of the state - new caucus participants attracted by Brown's rhetoric about political corruption and, more to the point, his opposition to nuclear power, which Tsongas supports. There has been considerable talk about sites in the area being used for dumping nuclear wastes. The result was a universe of caucus voters skewed by Brown to the point that he finished in essentially a dead heat with Tsongas.

In the long run, the Maine outcome isn't likely to have much effect on the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. There is no reason to believe that Brown can score as well in primaries, in which the vast majority of delegates will be chosen, as he did in those caucuses. On the contrary, Brown's negatives with Democrats are above 35 percent in some polls, usually an indicator of extremely poor political health.

But Brown does have the potential to be a player in other caucuses -- such as those in Washington next week, where the same opposition to nuclear power might be exploited to attract more like-minded people into the process, however temporarily. It is a warning to Tsongas, who has been planning a major effort in Washington. There also will be March 3 caucuses in Minnesota, Idaho and Utah.

Thus, there are opportunities for the former California governor to keep his campaign alive by picking off a few delegates here and there in small states. And that is the case even if he loses his eligibility for federal matching funds by finishing with less than 10 percent of the vote in two primaries in a row, an obvious possibility. As he likes to remind everyone ad nauseum, Brown is not a candidate dependent on large amounts of money.

Because Brown is so widely disparaged within the political community, where he is still "Governor Moonbeam," the principal effect of his success in Maine has been new demands to abolish the caucus system and switch to a primary there. In the past party leaders in many states have preferred caucuses on the theory the system gave those most active in party affairs year in and year out more influence over the choice of a presidential nominee. But the Maine experience suggests that isn't always the case. If Jerry Brown had any leadership support here, it was a well-kept secret.

Meanwhile, both Tsongas and Clinton paid something of a political price. Although he apparently won by a whisker when all the votes were counted, Tsongas failed to fulfill the expectation that -- like Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, Gary Hart in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 -- the New Hampshire winner would win in a walk here.

Clinton also took a hit because he had raised the stakes here by flying into the state the night before the caucuses to attend a party dinner in Lewiston and show the flag on statewide television news programs. By most local estimates, the Arkansas governor had the most sophisticated local organization in place behind him, as well as the support of more party officeholders. But the problem was that his organization concentrated on these usual suspects while Brown and, to a lesser extent, Tsongas were bringing new participants to the schools, town halls and firehouses for the caucuses. "We spent all our time on the wrong people," said one professional advising the Clinton campaign.

The two leaders have many chances to resolve doubts about their appeal. But they probably won't do it in caucuses.

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