Voting chaos ahead

November 03, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

SACRAMENTO -- While the eyes of the political world focus on Iowa and New Hampshire as the traditional kickoff states in the next presidential campaign, operatives of the major candidates are quietly preparing here for what could prove to be the critical battleground for the Republican and Democratic nominations -- California's March 7 primary.

Because California will send the largest delegations to the major parties' national conventions, it is being viewed widely as a crucial showdown for the candidates.

In each party, about 20 percent of the delegates required for nomination are to be decided here. The GOP winner will claim all the California delegates under the state GOP's winner-take-all rule, but the Democratic delegates will be parceled out on a proportional representation basis in the state's 52 congressional districts.

Crossing party lines

Complicating the California primary is the fact that for the first time in a presidential contest here, voters will be permitted to cross party lines. For instance, a voter registered as a Democrat could vote for a GOP nominee.

Initially, many politicians opposed such a primary, saying it would invite electoral sabotage by allowing members of one party to vote for the other party's weakest candidates.

The new "blanket primary" law also requires that ballots include codes to produce two vote totals for each presidential candidate. One will count the number of votes each candidate received from all voters, regardless of party. The second would tally votes each candidate gets from members of his party.

The parties could use the second total to award candidates the national convention delegates who select presidential nominees.

Because Texas Gov. George W. Bush is widely expected to be the GOP victor here and claimant of all the Republican delegates, the system has not raised too much concern on the Republican side.

But on the Democratic side, where a closer contest is anticipated between Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley -- and where GOP voters with less of a contest in their party might be inclined to play mischief by voting for one of the Democrats -- the system could result in a split decision.

That is, if Mr. Gore as expected were to receive the stronger vote in his own party as a result of party establishment support, including heavy backing from organized labor, and Mr. Bradley were to receive a large GOP "spoiler" vote, Mr. Gore might win the California fight for delegates and Mr. Bradley the popular presidential preference vote.

While capturing delegates is the basic name of the game, such an outcome might prove useful to Mr. Bradley in suggesting Mr. Gore's vulnerability in the general election and his own ability to attract Republican votes.

And a split decision would probably mute calls for the candidate who lost the delegate fight to drop out.

Kathy Bowler, a former state party aide who is now state director for Mr. Gore, acknowledges the possibility of such a split decision.

But Bob Mulholland, executive director of the California Democratic Party, argues that games-playing by members of the opposition party would likely be insignificant unless well organized, and "for some nefarious person to try to swing it would cost several millions" to succeed.

Gale Kaufman, a prominent Sacramento political consultant heading the Bradley campaign here, says the blanket primary has caused a lot of confusion among voters but didn't materially affect local and state elections in its first application.

She says the Bradley campaign wants to do well in both the popular and delegate votes and "we're not calling it [the blanket primary] anything but a big state having a primary on March 7."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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