The pitfalls of a too-brief primary-election campaign


WASHINGTON -- Some Republican leaders are growing increasingly self-congratulatory at the prospect that the contest for the party's presidential nomination will be settled quickly.

The rush of so many states to claim press attention by holding early primaries means that almost three-fourths of the delegates to the Republican convention will be chosen by the end of March.

And many professionals believe it is possible that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole may lock up the nomination for all practical purposes even sooner without having nailed down a majority of the delegates -- as early as March 12, the date for the Super Tuesday primaries in several states including Texas and Florida. There are even visions of Mr. Dole having taken an unassailable lead earlier if he wins the Iowa caucuses February 12, the New Hampshire primary February 20 and the March 5 primaries in New England, Georgia and Maryland.

There is precedent for such an early decision. In 1988 George Bush, then vice president, became the de facto nominee once he defeated Mr. Dole in New Hampshire and the senator's campaign collapsed in the South.

The prospect of such an early verdict is encouraging to the Republicans who believe it would allow the longest possible time for the wounds of the primaries, if any, to heal and for the de facto nominee to concentrate his attention on the general-election target, President Clinton.

In fact, however, such a rush to judgment could prove to be a mixed blessing for the Republicans.

For one thing, the voters tend to be bored by long campaigns and to take out their boredom by beginning to question the qualities and campaign of the putative nominee. That is what happened, for example, to Jimmy Carter in 1976, when he locked up the nomination in the Pennsylvania primary in late April, then lost a series of later contests to Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. of California and Sen. Frank Church of Idaho.

By contrast, a candidate who keeps winning new primaries every week, even against opponents with little chance of being nominated, is able to maintain some interest in the decision and some momentum. Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts managed to do that in 1988 when he continued to face at least the appearance of a challenge from civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson right through the California primary in June.

Most serious threat

The most serious threat to the Republicans is not simply that the voters will lose interest. It is, instead, that the party will settle early on a candidate, then discover that he does not wear well with the voters.

The most frightening prospect, of course, is that Senator Dole -- or someone else -- will lock up the nomination early, then commit some gaffe that will compromise or perhaps even cripple his prospects of winning the general election. Democrats have speculated for years about what would have happened if they found out about Donna Rice after Gary Hart became the de facto nominee in 1988 rather than when he was only a front-runner for the nomination in 1987.

There is no specific reason for Republicans to fear Mr. Dole's ascendancy. No one imagines that there is some dark, disqualifying secret in his past. And he already has shown in the early phases of this contest that he understands the necessity of keeping his cool under pressure from his rivals.

But whether he will wear well with the voters after prolonged exposure is another question entirely. He already is burdened with relatively high negatives in opinion polls. One new survey found 40 percent of Republicans not content with the choices they are being offered right now. And if it turns out that he doesn't wear well, it will be too late for the party to turn to someone else.

As a practical matter, Mr. Dole is not likely to clear the field of all opposition that quickly. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas still has enough money to remain in the race even if he loses in Iowa and New Hampshire. Former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has the potential to emerge as the prime challenger if he beats the expectations in those first tests. Patrick J. Buchanan has a core of devoted supporters numerous enough to keep his

candidacy alive even if it never becomes truly viable.

The polls tell us voters don't like long campaigns. But they serve the purpose of giving those same voters a fully developed picture of the candidates -- before it's too late to make another choice.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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