Bush camp kills plan to change primaries

Republicans avert floor fight over scheduling in 2004

July 29, 2000|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - As somebody once said about bad weather, everybody in politics complains about the presidential nominating process, but nobody ever does anything about it.

A band of adventurous Republicans did try to do something here yesterday, but the effort was summarily shot down by the presumptive nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, leaving in place the much-criticized system of front-loaded primaries that favors candidates who, like Bush, have ample campaign funds.

After a long period of neutrality on the issue, the Bush campaign killed a party task force's plan to give more states a voice in the process, and poorer candidates a better chance. The Republican National Convention's rules committee easily voted it down, 66-33, after a low-key debate, averting a possible floor fight next week.

Called the Delaware plan, it would have ditched the process that permitted a rush of states to the front of the primary calendar this year, after the traditional kickoff voting in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. That process effectively produced the GOP nominee by the first week in March, but voters in most states never had a say in the decision and the front-loading put a high premium on money and news media attention.

The rejected Delaware plan would have divided the states into four groups, each voting in a succeeding month of the election year, starting with the smallest states in February and progressing to the largest not before May. The scheme not only would have given more states a voice, but also would have extended the decision-making process because the majority of delegates would not have been picked before May.

Maryland would have been in the third group of states that would have been authorized to hold a primary in 2004 no earlier than Tuesday, April 6, sharing the date with Massachusetts and 11 other middle-sized states in the South, Midwest and West.

Richard Taylor, the Maryland national committeeman, argued for approval of the plan as "an overall benefit to the country." With the front-loaded scheme in place, he warned, "we are moving toward a national primary" that will "result in getting us a candidate chosen by big media," which, he said, "has never been our friend."

On Thursday, the plan had won approval of the Republican National Committee by a 92-55 vote, with each state having two votes regardless of population, thus favoring the smaller states. With the Bush campaign remaining neutral up to that point, it appeared the plan had a good chance to get through the rules committee and go to the convention floor.

But Bush's strategists apparently did not want to risk even a modest floor fight muddying the picture of party harmony and unity they have worked diligently to paint for the convention that will open here Monday. Convention managers had already dampened the prospects for disruptive platform floor fights over such social issues as abortion.

Yesterday morning, Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, informed an advocate of the plan, Virginia national committeeman Morton Blackwell, that the Bush campaign wanted the Delaware plan rejected, and another Bush agent, Charles Black, passed the word to other committee members.

Basil Battaglia, the Delaware national committeeman who conceived the plan, expressed disappointment.

Meanwhile, Republicans kept their strong anti-abortion stance in negotiations over the party platform yesterday, defeating two amendments that would have recognized differing views on this perennially divisive issue.

A platform panel discussing the "Family and Community" section of the party's document on core issues voted resoundingly against one amendment that would have taken out a section stating that the "unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed."

The subcommittee also defeated an amendment that would have added language noting divergent views on abortion within the party.

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