Front-loading backfires on the Republicans nTC

March 04, 1996|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

BOSTON -- Five New England states are holding what is being called the ''Yankee primary'' tomorrow, and Bob Dole was scheduled to hold one rally in each of the five this weekend.

These brief stops will be, for all practical purposes, the entire Dole campaign in these states. And, at that, he is giving them more attention than any of his rivals except possibly Lamar Alexander, who is running some television commercials to supplement his own fly-around.

Empty exercise

This is what the competition for the Republican presidential nomination has become -- an empty exercise governed by a laughable schedule of primaries and a few caucuses that make it impossible to do much more.

On the face of it, the New England primary should be given somewhat more attention. There are 107 delegates at stake in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and Vermont. And except in the case of Maine's 15 votes, they will be awarded winner-take-all in each state.

But the surviving candidates -- Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes as well as Messrs. Dole and Alexander -- had to spend some time in Arizona and South Carolina last week. And tomorrow the Yankee primary will share the stage with others in Colorado, Maryland and Georgia. Two days after the vote here there will be another primary in New York and five days thereafter there will be contests in Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Oregon.

This is, in short, the season of the ''tarmac campaign'' -- so-called because candidates often fly into a state for an airport rally and call it a campaign.

This mad -- is the product of what the politicians call ''front-loading'' -- the rush of states to schedule their primaries early in the campaign in the hope of attracting attention from the candidates and the national news media before they become irrelevant because someone has locked up the nomination.

The unintended consequence is a situation in which most primary voters never see enough of the candidates in their states to make anything that might be considered a thoughtful decision. Instead, these voters are especially susceptible to either television commercials or a sound bite on the networks from a debate in some distant state.

There is not enough time for news organizations to discuss and explain what happened in one state before it is time to focus on the next. And the candidate who slips has little chance to regain his footing. By the same token, the candidate who scores some small coup may earn exaggerated benefits from it because there is so little time for voters to put it into perspective.

Man on a white horse

Nor is there time for the party to take any corrective action if it appears, as it may to many Republicans now, that the whole field leaves something to be desired.

Because the primaries and caucuses were scheduled so early, almost all the filing deadlines had passed before the New Hampshire primary. That is why the speculation about a man on a white horse saving the Republicans with a late-starting campaign is just idle talk.

Voters here in New England have less reason to complain than most. Because the candidates and press spent so much time on the other state in the region, New Hampshire, newspaper readers and television viewers here already have been exposed to far more information about the candidates than their counterparts in South Carolina or Georgia.

Originally party leaders welcomed the idea of front-loading on the theory that this schedule would mean the party could settle early on a nominee and turn its attention on President Clinton -- and on healing any intraparty wounds left from the primary wars.

As things are turning out, however, even that limited goal may be beyond reach. Even if Bob Dole regains his standing as the front-runner and wins a lot of primaries in the next two weeks, he will still be a long way from getting the 996 delegates needed for the nomination at San Diego next August. Mr. Dole faces the prospect that not just one but two candidates will hang in against him to the bitter end. Mr. Buchanan already demonstrated in 1992 that he would keep his candidacy alive until given his podium at the convention. And Mr. Forbes apparently is willing to spend whatever it takes to be a player. Each has the potential to win enough delegates to make the road to 996 steep and rocky.

Political campaigns are rarely elevating experiences even under the best of circumstances, but the schedule Republicans are following this year is ridiculous.

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

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