Super Tuesday follies

March 09, 2000|By Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

LOS ANGELES -- Last Thursday, when Sen. John McCain debated Gov. George W. Bush and Alan Keyes, he started the day here with a rally and then flew east for another campaign event in New York. He stopped in St. Louis, went to a television studio and participated in the debate by satellite.

His travel produced the ludicrous scene in Los Angeles of Governor Bush and Mr. Keyes standing at two podiums, with a television set perched on a third showing Mr. McCain from St. Louis. While Mr. Bush and Mr. Keyes had direct interchange, Mr. Bush at one point walking over to Keyes for a little television theatrics, the necessarily stationary Mr. McCain peered out from the television set.

This cameo was only a minor episode in the fiasco we know as Super Tuesday. The bunching together of 11 state primaries and five caucuses on a single day, including the major states of California, New York and Ohio, obliged the candidates to criss-cross the country over the previous week at a pace that exhausted them and their staffs, reporters and cameramen, and a public understandably confused by it all.

The general rush to the front of the calendar further complicated the problem, especially for the Republicans.

After the kickoff caucuses in Iowa on Jan. 24 and primary in New Hampshire on Feb. 1, the Democrats had no delegate-selecting events until Super Tuesday, five weeks away. So Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley had ample -- if hurried -- time to cover most of the Super Tuesday states.

The Republicans had it worse. Four days after New Hampshire, Delaware held a Republican primary. Two weeks after that was another one in South Carolina, and only three days later, still another in Michigan. That left the Republicans with only two weeks to contend with the epidemic of contests on Super Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, the largest states got the bulk of candidate attention, shuttling between New York and California a continent away, with only quickie stops in other places.

The same thing will happen on a smaller scale next week when a Southern Super Tuesday happens in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

It probably will matter less, however, because the Democratic race for all practical purposes is over now and on the Republican side, Mr. McCain strategists say he will basically finesse the South in the coming week and start concentrating on the Illinois primary on March 21.

The two Super Tuesday weeks taken together come close to being a national primary, which many political scholars have warned would kill off the chances of any little-known or underfunded candidates.

Also, they warn, having one primary everywhere in the country would inevitably drive the candidates to focus even more on the megastates like California and New York with largest populations and, not coincidentally, the biggest crops of convention delegates.

It would also rule out any suspense in the campaign after that day. And there would be no opportunity for "buyer's remorse" to trigger in -- that phenomenon wherein voters may come to regret the choice made and have a chance to reverse it.

For all the complaining about Super Tuesday and front-loading, however, scrapping either or both for the 2004 election will require a rational judgment by the major parties and the states. They may come to their senses by 2004, but don't bet on it.

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

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