Who thought this was a good way to pick a president?

March 06, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- Nothing better demonstrates the utter folly of ''front-loading'' the presidential delegate-selection process -- squeezing 30 primaries and caucuses into a 49-day period from early February though late March --than what's happening here going into tomorrow's New York Republican primary.

With only two days between the eight state primaries and a caucus held yesterday and the New York voting, the three competing candidates -- Bob Dole, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan -- have been reduced to frantic fly-arounds upstate where most Republicans live and quick touch-downs in the nation's largest city.

What makes this forced behavior particularly absurd is the fact that the New York primary offers by far the largest delegate prize in any state so far -- 102 delegates, three elected in each of the state's 31 congressional districts for a total of 93, plus nine more to be picked by the state committee, based on the statewide result. Until now, the 42 delegates of Georgia has been the biggest prize.

In New York, the ballots in each congressional district first bear the names of individuals running for delegate and only then, in smaller letters, the presidential candidate they are supporting. In effect New York has 31 separate elections, further taxing the ability of the candidates to campaign effectively.

Thus, there's a premium on having locally prominent persons running for delegate, and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's party organization is solidly behind Senator Dole. Mr. Forbes is reduced to counting on another big television buy, estimated here at at least $1 million, and Mr. Buchanan is greatly dependent on anti-abortion forces and strong social conservatives, many of whom are ineligible to vote in the Republican Party because they are registered in either the Right-to-Life Party or the Conservative Party, both legally established in the state.

This front-loading farce was powered by two desires -- states' quests for more publicity and clout in the nomination process by moving their primary and caucus dates forward, and party leaders' hope of forcing an early identification of the nominee.

In the pursuit of these objectives, they have created a political monster that has put a grotesque burden on the candidates, on the press reporting what they are saying and doing, and -- not least important -- on voters trying to sort it all out in order to make an intelligent voting decision.

Mighty Dubuque

The notion in all this front-loading was to take away some of the huge influence of the kickoff contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. But for all the other states advancing their dates, most 1996 candidates still spent more than a year courting the voters of Iowa City, Dubuque, Manchester and Nashua for the measly delegate prize of 25 in Iowa and 16 in New Hampshire. And New York gets two days of spotty campaigning for 102. Go figure.

Senator Dole observed in Albany the other day that ''New York could do it. It could demoralize every other candidate in this race. They [read Forbes] wouldn't even be able to write checks anymore.'' And while sweeping New York won't give Mr. Dole the 996 delegates needed for nomination, it would put him far ahead. With the stakes so high, the voters of New York deserve more than two days to look and listen before being forced to make their call.

Matters aren't going to get much better after the New York returns are in. Five days later voters go to the polls in six more states with a whopping total of 353 delegates at stake -- Texas (123), Florida (98), Tennessee and Oklahoma (38 each), Mississippi (33) and Oregon (23). Once again, candidates surviving the New York sprint will be obliged to scamper on to give voters in these states a brief pitch on why they should be nominated.

After that, voters in four major Midwest states -- Illinois (69 delegates), Ohio (67), Michigan (57) and Wisconsin (36) -- will have an entire week, split among all four, to examine the candidates and make their choice. By then the nomination may be all but decided. If not, it's on to California (163 delegates) plus Washington (36) and Nevada (14) another week later. If Americans were electing a national dog-catcher, this insane schedule would not matter. But they're not. It's small wonder voters are turned off by politics when they see the mess politicians have made of the way they do their own business.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau. Pub Date: 3/06/96

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