Getting ahead of the pack?

February 07, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The post-New Hampshire uneasiness spreading through the Republican Party is the ultimate proof of just how flawed a system the nation is following in choosing its presidential nominees.

The problem is the number of states who insisted on moving their primary and precinct caucuses dates as early in the process as possible. The theory has been that this front-loading was the only way a state could have any influence on the outcome -- and, not incidentally, capture any attention from the television networks.

As it has turned out, however, the price may be high. The rush to judgment dictated largely by the primary schedule means there is no chance for buyer remorse.

There is no reason to suggest that the Republicans have reason to be in a panic after one round of precinct caucuses in Iowa and one primary in New Hampshire. But some of the questions raised by those results illustrate the dilemma either party might confront.

The first concern among Republican leaders is that their favored candidate, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, may be unable to make a personal connection with the national electorate that would make him competitive against the Democrats in November.

Mr. Bush's prime asset always has been the consensus in the party hierarchy, supported by national opinion polls, that he would be the best route back to control of the White House. After eight years of Bill Clinton, Republicans shudder at the notion of eight more under Al Gore or Bill Bradley.

But now the opinion polls have changed. And the results in New Hampshire, always more impressive than mere polls, raise at least the possibility that Mr. Bush may not evoke the kind of support elsewhere that he has achieved in winning two elections in Texas with impressive performance.

That leads to the second concern among Republican leaders. They don't like the only alternative to Mr. Bush, Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona. He is so independent and so prickly they fear they wouldn't be much better off with him in the White House.

Two generations ago this potential dilemma might have been avoided. The party bosses who gathered in smoke-filled rooms could have made decisions to deliver blocs of delegates and control the process. If they didn't like one of the two choices, they could simply shut him out. That was what happened, for example, when Nelson A. Rockefeller seemed to pose a threat to Vice President Richard M. Nixon in 1960. Party regulars simply closed the door to him.

In the past, it was also possible to look for candidates beyond the alternatives out there in the field. Because there were only a few primaries, most delegates to the national conventions were free to make decisions on nominees.

These days, although the rules in the two parties differ, most of the delegates are won in primaries. And even those delegates with some discretion about whom they will support would hesitate to defy the political wisdom of the millions of primary voters.

The fault doesn't lie in the primary process, however. No one can justify an argument against allowing party members to choose their own nominees. The problem is that the schedule is so mindless. It doesn't allow for alternative candidates to make a late entry into the campaign and have any realistic chance of becoming competitive.

And it doesn't space out the primaries enough so that either the voters or the press has the time to learn the things about the candidates they need to know to make a truly informed decision. In both parties, more than two-thirds of the delegates will have been chosen by he middle of next month -- meaning four full months before the nominating conventions.

Every four years, there is a round of hand-wringing and agonizing over the primary system. And several efforts are under way in both parties to find a different system. There are plans for regional primaries and rotating dates so that every state would be able to get in on the action.

But reform will be extremely difficult to achieve. Trying to get 50 state legislatures and 50 governors to agree on what would constitute a fair system is a task beyond mortal man.

Perhaps what is needed for action would be for one party or the other to go through the shock of producing a de facto nominee in March only discover in April some disqualifying skeleton in his closet. Oops, too late.

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

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