Quick pick may not mean a better nominee in 1996



WASHINGTON -- Four years ago the Democrats began "front-loading" the presidential nominating process -- meaning scheduling more state primaries and caucuses earlier in 1992 so they could reach a quick decision on a nominee and get on with the business of defeating George Bush.

The strategy was only partially successful that year, but it now appears that the 1996 schedule will be so front-loaded it will be almost unrecognizable. And the consequences may be largely unintended, which is what often happens when politicians carry a sound idea to a ridiculous extreme.

The move in New York to move its primary from April up to March 5, coupled with an earlier decision in California to move up from June to March 26, means about 75 percent of the delegates to both parties' national conventions will have been chosen before April 1. And that, in turn, means it is quite likely the contest for the nomination will have been settled.

The front-loading may be even further accelerated. Ohio has moved up from May to March 19 to join Illinois and Michigan, and there is a possibility that Pennsylvania and Wisconsin also will settle on that date -- thus creating a de facto Rust Belt regional primary.

The New York initiative, disclosed by Gov. Mario Cuomo the other day, will steal a march on California by making the state the richest early prize. The primary would be held the same day as those in Georgia, Colorado and Maryland on what has become known as Junior Tuesday because it falls a week before Super Tuesday, when 10 states -- including Texas, Florida and Massachusetts -- choose delegates.

The rush to the front of the calendar is, of course, largely a question of each state trying to enhance its influence on the process. Politicians in California have long since tired of a system in which the decision has been made long before the first Tuesday in June on which the California primary has been held.

There is also an obvious attempt to minimize the influence of New Hampshire, which holds the first primary every four years, and Iowa, which schedules its precinct caucuses eight days ahead of New Hampshire. In fact, however, the front-loading may make those small states even more important than they have been in the past.

Because the rush of primaries will come so soon after New Hampshire -- probably two weeks -- the results of those earliest tests may be magnified in news coverage. And because no candidate is likely to have the resources to run saturation television advertising in so many places, the news coverage -- and particularly that on television -- can be decisive.

The conventional wisdom also holds that the front-loading will put a premium on fund raising if only because so much money will be needed to establish a presence in so many large states. And that, in turn, will encourage candidates -- meaning mostly Republicans in 1996 -- to declare themselves and begin campaigning early in 1995.

The question of which Republican might gain or lose from an early start in 1996 is essentially impossible to answer at this point. It would appear that the best-known aspirants -- Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, for example -- would have something of a head start. But recent political history shows that those running starts are meaningless if some other candidate scores in Iowa and New Hampshire. One of the lessons politicians have learned is that most voters don't really focus on the contest until it is time for someone to vote.

The most significant change, however, may come in the way candidates develop. The marathon-like quality of the process has the advantage of allowing candidates to find their footing and work out the kinks in their campaigns over a period of weeks or months.

But the schedule that is being developed now will be unforgiving. Candidates will have to establish themselves as serious players in Iowa and New Hampshire or be lost in the blur of major state primaries packed into a three-week period between New York March 5 and California March 26.

The result of this rush to judgment is likely to be an earlier decision on a presidential nominee, but not necessarily a wiser one.

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