Front-loading folly: a dash to decision, at a cost in deliberation

March 22, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The politicians who dreamed up the phenomenon of front-loading bunching their presidential primaries at the head of the election-year calendar have now achieved half their objective: an early decision on the Republican nominee. But the other half garnering gobs of publicity and money for their states lies in the ashes of a stupendously stupid idea.

For all the front-loading, it turned out once again that Iowa and New Hampshire drew the most attention from the news media all through 1995 and into late February. The two traditional kickoff states for delegate-selection also gained most of the financial benefit that is supposed to come to early-voting states from free-spending hordes of campaigners, reporters and assorted hangers-on who make up the traveling road show.

Even Louisiana, which stole a march on the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary with an earlier, dismally attended ''caucus'' that really was a primary, failed to draw the attention, the candidates or the bucks that accrued to the two traditional starters.

Delaware and Arizona, both of which threatened for a time to jump ahead of New Hampshire's primary but settled for holding theirs a few days afterward, got minimal publicity and revenue for their trouble because the other major candidates gave Delaware to fat-cat Steve Forbes by default and Robert Dole and Lamar Alexander brushed off Arizona, enabling Mr. Forbes to resurrect his campaign briefly.

Because of the pressures of front-loading, Mr. Dole chose to slight Arizona to focus on the South Carolina primary four days later. It which proved to be the gateway to his sweep of the Southern primaries. Had the senator campaigned longer in Arizona, he probably would have won rather than finishing just 3 percentage points behind Mr. Forbes, who spent at least $1 million in television advertising.

After Senator Dole's big victory in South Carolina, the candidates had only three days to spread their charm and money around in eight more states, and only two more days after that to bask in the spotlight of New York. Only Messrs. Dole, Forbes and Buchanan ran there, and two of them gave it barely a brush-block Mr. Dole because Sen. Al D'Amato already had the state's 102 delegates greased for him and Mr. Buchanan because he knew his goose was cooked in liberal downstate.

Little glory

Then came Super Tuesday with only five days to campaign in six states including Texas and Florida, a schedule that brought little glory or reward to any one of them except Senator Dole. He could ride momentum with his remaining challengers forestalled by time from mounting impressive efforts in any state.

By seven days later it was all over, with only Mr. Buchanan persevering in four delegate-rich Midwest states that put

Senator Dole over the top. From now until next Tuesday, Republicans in Utah, California, Nevada and Washington, who thought they had moved their voting up early enough to be factors in picking the nominee, will watch ineffectively as the nominee-apparent takes a victory lap.

Every state that has voted, except Iowa and New Hampshire, has been short-changed. There was little time to see and hear the candidates, or to digest the significance. The politicians who wanted front-loading have gotten their hurry-up nominee, but at a great cost in deliberative campaigning.

The candidates, especially Mr. Forbes, made up for lack of time to persuade voters of their own virtues by spending millions of dollars for television time to enumerate and exaggerate their opponents' faults. To get the whole mess over with, the nominating process was reduced to farce. The man who survived may be the one who deserved to do so, but the rush to judgment certainly did not serve the cause of an informed electorate.

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

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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