NEW YORK -- There is some old-fashioned political hardball being played by freshman Gov. George E. Pataki and the host of other GOP leaders who have joined Sen. Al D'Amato in his attempt to hand Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole the state's 102 delegates to the 1996 Republican National Convention on a silver platter.
They are turning a totally deaf ear to the plea earlier this month of four other declared Republican presidential candidates that they reform the party's delegate-selection rules and procedures in ways that will give them a fighting chance to compete with Dole.
"There is no basis for a complaint," says Brian Reichenbach, executive director of the state party that has lined up solidly behind Dole, as have all the Republican legislative leaders who might conceivably change the extremely difficult requirements for ballot access in the state. "We can't close the primaries if we wanted to," he said. "Anybody can qualify."
That is technically correct, but the difficulty is so great, Reichenbach acknowledges, that he doesn't think any of the four complainers -- Sens. Phil Gramm and Arlen Specter, California Gov. Pete Wilson and Rep. Bob Dornan of California -- or any of the other candidates will qualify even if they try.
One of them, Specter, will try, says Roger Stone, his campaign chairman and a veteran of past New York presidential primaries.
As Ronald Reagan's man in the state in 1976, he was all but shut out, but he took most of the delegates for Reagan in 1980, largely shutting out competitor George Bush.
Stone says he knows enough about the process, and can find enough grass-roots help from abortion rights activists and Jewish voters supporting his candidate, to compete in as many as two-thirds of the state's 31 congressional districts where ballot access must be achieved.
On the surface, the task does not seem so daunting. Party regulations require the gathering of 1,250 certifiable signatures in each of the state's congressional districts, in each of which three delegates are to be chosen in the March 7 primary.
But the signatures must be gathered in little more than a month before the filing deadline, expected to be the first week in January. Any candidate who hopes to get a boost from a good showing in the Iowa precinct caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in February thus can forget about it being any help in signature-gathering. "The deadline is much earlier than it would have to be for anybody catching fire in Iowa," says veteran New York pollster and analyst Lee Miringoff.
The number of signatures required statewide comes to only 38,750, a pittance in a state the size of New York.
But a standard rule of thumb in signature-gathering is to get two or three times the number needed, to make sure enough are certified. And in New York, the information required for a certification is so complex that, Miringoff says, petition-gathering best done by precinct and state party workers who know the ropes.
With the overwhelming bulk of these sewed up for Dole, Miringoff says, "do you as a campaign want to spend a lot of your resources collecting petitions in New York when there are a lot of other states out there?"
The complaining candidates, in a pleading letter to Pataki, suggest that the apparent shutout threatens "to make the state's primary virtually irrelevant to the selection of the Republican nominee, as most outside observers will recognize the meaninglessness of a primary in which only one name appears on the ballot."
That observation is laughable. If Dole walks away with 102 convention delegates, with or without competition, the result will mean a very great deal.
It could even be decisive, if Dole prior to the New York primary has won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. By that time, hard delegate counts, not symbolic victories and "good showings," will be what the nomination race will be all about.
The hope of Dole challengers is that he will self-destruct before then and open New York to them.
Mark Merritt, a strategist for former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, suggests that if the New York party leaders may eventually be looking for a second choice, it makes little sense to get them angry now by challenging their ballot access rules.