The choice between Dole and chaos

March 02, 1996|By Daniel Berger

TO BECOME a credible candidate after his Arizona setback, Pat Buchanan should come in first in the South Carolina Republican primary today.

To remain viable, Lamar Alexander, the only certified Southerner left standing, needs a strong showing.

But the political establishment there favors Sen. Bob Dole, who was leading comfortably in the polls early this week.

Maryland has more people than Iowa, New Hampshire and Delaware combined. But hardly anyone out there seems to care whom our Republicans will prefer on Tuesday.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Maryland's 32 delegates to the Republican National Convention will be chosen on Junior Tuesday along with 107 from New England excluding New Hampshire, 42 from Georgia and 27 from Colorado.

A second reason is that Maryland Republicans' method of selection is not as alluring as some.

The most fair system is a proportional allocation of delegates, such as Maryland Democrats have. In New Hampshire, nobody ''won'' or ''lost'' but the leaders shared the delegates. All that huffing and puffing for incremental differences was really to DTC impress voters and contributors elsewhere.

Some state parties seek influence and attention more than fairness to voters. They make it worth a candidate's while to invest presence, advertising and the media spotlight. It's a system called winner-take-all statewide.

In Arizona, Steve Forbes won only 33 percent of the vote to 30 percent for Mr. Dole and 27 percent for Mr. Buchanan. By New Hampshire rules, they would have divvied the delegates, but in Arizona, Mr. Forbes gets all 39.

On Tuesday, Georgia's 42 delegates and Maryland's 32 will be chosen winner-take-all by district and at-large. Massachusetts' 37 will be winner-take-all statewide, same as Arizona. Rhode island's 16 will be by proportional representation. The candidate's effort is best spent in Massachusetts.

Sophisticated Marylanders

Anyway, Maryland is as politically sophisticated an electorate as there is, a significant portion being inside the Capital Beltway and most of the rest paying some attention. Marylanders can make their own minds up if anyone can.

The more important primary will be Thursday in New York (rather than Tuesday, which is the Jewish holiday of Purim -- don't tell Mr. Buchanan).

Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and his protege, Gov. George Pataki, tried to put the fix in for Senator Dole by keeping everyone else off the New York ballot. It backfired.

Mr. Forbes got the courts to put him on statewide. Mr. Buchanan is on the ballot in a bunch of congressional districts and fighting in court for more.

Senator Dole was supposed to win all New York's 102 delegates, 93 in the primary, three in each district. But if Republican voters are sufficiently angry at the machinations, they will cast protest votes, mostly for Mr. Forbes.

So New York is as dangerous for Senator Dole as South Carolina is for Messrs. Buchanan and Alexander.

Mighty Texas and Florida join other Southern states on Super Tuesday, March 12. The following Tuesday sees primaries in Big Ten country, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

And March 26 is the primary in California where the winner, even by an eyelash, will take all 163 delegates. California is determined to make the nation's decision. In the past it voted nearly last, usually too late. This year, it moved the date up and may succeed.

Roughly speaking, Senator Dole is in the lead but with shrinking margins in the key states.

By the end of March, either Mr. Dole should have this thing wrapped up, or there will be confusion, the decision likely left to the national convention and back-room dealing. More like chaos.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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