Forget reforming primaries

May 05, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There is much to be said in favor of the plan the Republicans have produced for making more sense out of the presidential primary process. It also must be said, however, that it has little chance of ever being carried out.

The proposal was developed by a Republican commission headed by former Sen. William Brock of Tennessee, a onetime highly successful chairman of the Republican National Committee, who described it as an attempt to slow the "rush to judgment" that seems inevitable under the existing system. But to become a reality it would have to be approved by the Republican National Convention at Philadelphia this summer, by the Democrats and by the 50 state legislatures. Lots of luck.

Whatever its potential for approval, the plan would meet the first requirement of any true nominating reform simply by slowing down the process so the press, the politicians and the voters have enough time to understand what is happening -- and perhaps to change directions. Under the current system, the primaries come in a helter-skelter pattern a few days or a week apart, a pace that doesn't allow thoughtful consideration. This year, as more states moved up in the schedule, both parties reached de facto final decisions on nominees March 7 when California, New York, Ohio and several other states voted simultaneously.

There was little time for buyer's remorse -- or, more accurately, for either the Democrats or Republicans feeling such remorse to do anything about it.

The "Delaware plan" -- so-called because it originated with Republicans from that state -- would allow party voters to think about their decision somewhat longer. It would divide the states into four groups by population. Those with the fewest people would hold their primaries in early March, followed at intervals of a month by those with larger populations until the most populous states cast their ballots in the first week in June.

The theory is that allowing the small states to go first would make it easier for candidates with limited money to compete where the costs would be lowest. The delay in reaching the most populous states would -- in theory, at least -- prevent candidates from locking up the delegates needed to cinch the nominations before most primary voters have had a chance to express their opinion.

The timetable would be enforced by threatening states that do not conform with the loss of 50 percent or more of their convention delegates. The Brock commission also recommended that winner-take-all primaries be abolished, a step the Democrats already have taken. And it called for making all members of the Republican National Committee automatic delegates, thus creating a bloc of uncommitted party leaders who might influence a close call at the convention. Again, the Democrats already have a category of "super delegates" -- including members of Congress and some other elected officials as well as members of the Democratic National Committee.

The Brock group ducked perhaps the touchiest issue in any reform of the nominating system: the special consideration that allows New Hampshire to hold its primary first in the nation. The Democrats have established a four-month "window" for delegate-selection starting in March but given Iowa and New Hampshire dispensation to start earlier. The commission left it to the RNC to decide later whether to do something similar.

The Republican proposal was not unlike others in its basic approach of spreading out the process until early June. The National Association of Secretaries of State have come up with a plan for four regional groupings of states holding their primaries a month apart, with the order rotating so that all states are able to win a share of the national media attention the presidential primaries always attract.

That, of course, is what the problem is all about.

Politicians in every state want a chance for their state to play an influential role in the presidential process, not simply go through pro-forma primaries after the decision has been made for all practical purposes. And the trick for the Brock commission will be to convince those from states that have been winning national attention to move to the third or fourth groups that attract fewer cameras.

It is likely to be an extremely hard sell.

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

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