SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- No better example is needed of the folly of the presidential nomination process as now constituted than the farce of the South Dakota primary just concluded.
Voters here were treated to the equivalent of a game of flash cardstheir neighbor state, spent most of one week campaigning here, as did the involuntary stealth candidate, former Irvine, Calif., Mayor Larry Agran, admitted to a televised presidential debate for the first time.
But the others -- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and former Gov. Jerry Brown of California -- breezed in and out like the winter wind that whistles across South Dakota's dreary prairies. Tsongas spent an hour or so at the stockyards here and made a local college stop, but Clinton and Brown showed up essentially for the debate and then disappeared.
It was on the basis of this now-you-see-'em, now-you-don't political striptease that the 697,000 good people of South Dakota, or at least the 180,000 registered Democrats, were supposed to make an informed decision on which candidate should be the 1992 Democratic presidential nominee.
In the relative absence of the Democratic field, the voters had to rely on the single debate and on television advertisements in which the candidates offered self-serving snapshots of themselves and crude slaps at their opponents, no more nor less truthful than most such ads these days.
Al Kirts, the director of television programs for South Dakota public television, estimates that only 20,000 to 45,000 viewers saw the generally lively debate among the six Democratic candidates last Sunday night. Those who watched -- and there is no way of telling how many were registered Democrats and how many actually voted -- got a heavy dose of discussion on issues of special interest to the farm, rural and Native American communities, in which Kerrey and Harkin naturally seemed best informed.
Unlike the opening primary of the year in New Hampshire, where the candidates were able to spend weeks of retail campaigning on top of television advertising giving voters there a thorough exposure to their views on a wide range of issues, this one was a kiss on the cheek on the way out of town.
It is argued by some that because South Dakota elects only 19 delegates to the Democratic National Convention (the Republican primary was uncontested), the lack of a serious campaign here doesn't matter much. However, what happened here over the past week is about to be duplicated repeatedly around the country over the next two weeks.
Next Tuesday, seven states and American Samoa will hold primaries and caucuses, and five more states plus Democrats abroad will do the same the rest of the week.
On March 10 Super Tuesday 11 states will vote, by which time voters in 27 states and two other jurisdictions will have acted, in the space of exactly one month.
Clearly, it is impossible under such a schedule for any candidate to do justice to the voters in any one of these states without robbing the others of the sort of candidate exposure voters should expect in a democratic process of such singular importance. As a result, the states that are most delegate-rich or offer the most competitive circumstances are favored over the others.
This schedule cries out for a saner grouping of primaries and caucuses, perhaps a month apart from February through June, by region or otherwise, to permit voters to hear and see the candidates in more than a blur. But don't bet the rent money on that happening.