Looking ahead to 2004

March 22, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The nation having just been run over by the freight train that was the six-week presidential primary period producing Al Gore and George W. Bush as the two major-party nominees, the parties are now looking at ways to slow it down four years from now.

Democratic National Chairman Joe Andrew and Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson met the other day, along with former Sen. Bill Brock, head of a GOP commission on the subject, to start discussions aimed at stretching out the voting so that more Americans get a say in 2004. The Democrats have a similar study group, headed by James Roosevelt Jr. of Boston, grandson of FDR.

The reason for the review is not dissatisfaction with the choices that resulted from the rush to judgment, but rather unhappiness with the process. The candidates were obliged to fling themselves pell-mell from one side of the country to the other at such a dizzying pace that everyone concerned -- campaign aides, the traveling news media and the public -- was exhausted at the end.

For all the attempts of states to play a decisive role in the nomination process by advancing their dates earlier in the pre-convention season, Mr. Brock notes, "we gave less than half of the American people a chance to choose the two candidates."

With Iowa kicking off the voting with its caucuses on the unprecedentedly early date of Jan. 24, and the Republican and Democratic nominees chosen for all practical purposes by Super Tuesday, March 7, other state contests thereafter were rendered meaningless.

Mr. Brock notes that after record turnouts up to then, at least on the Republican side for the fight between Mr. Bush and John McCain, the numbers not surprisingly nose-dived on the Southern Super Tuesday a week later, and others since then. Beyond that, he says, the horse-race aspect of the nomination contest -- who's ahead and who's behind -- dominated the process, with insufficient time for development of issues, especially as negative attacks dominated.

Another obvious result of the front-loading this year was the commanding role played by money. So much was needed for all the early primary states that six of the 12 Republicans in the race last summer bailed out even before the first state voted, knowing they could compete with the deep pockets of Mr. Bush and Steve Forbes.

Getting agreement between the two parties on a more sensible primary calendar four years from now won't be easy. But Mr. Brock says the first talks did find support in both parties for barring such an early start next time and having no state, including Iowa or New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the first primary, vote before March. That step alone would go a long way toward pushing back the 2004 calendar for primary and caucus voting.

The Republicans at their 1996 national convention in San Diego took a stab at trying to coax states to move their primary dates back. They considered awarding a bonus of 20 percent of a state's delegation to states that agreed to do so, but the figure was cut back to only 10 percent -- not nearly enough to entice any front-loaded state to move. Mr. Brock says no state is likely to sign on for less than a 50 percent bonus, and probably not even then.

A plan proposed by the organization of the various secretaries of state would create regional primaries on the same day, a month apart, with the order rotated by region every four years. A similar one would group states by time zone, and a third would have the smaller states go first and the largest last, as a means of giving long-shot candidates a chance to become known, and delaying the award of the nominations.

Mr. Brock says any plan that could put the actual nomination decisions back into the national conventions would be ideal, but that would take more than two candidates surviving the primary gauntlet, or some states sending favorite sons or uncommitted delegations. Right now, the effort seems limited to just slowing down the freight train a bit when it comes roaring through in 2004.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

Pub Date: 3/22/00

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