Bush wants harmony during convention

July 31, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

PHILADELPHIA - The demise of the effort of small-state Republicans to substitute sanity for insanity in the way their party selects its presidential nominee was a triumph of self-interest by their large-state counterparts with a decisive boost from a similarly self-interested George W. Bush camp.

It seemed headed for the convention floor this week - until the word was passed by way of chief Bush strategist Karl Rove to one of the plan's supporters, Morton Blackwell of Virginia, that the Bush forces didn't want the so-called Delaware plan letting small states hold primaries first and having the largest states go last.

The plan had won approval of the Republican National Committee by a vote of nearly 2-1 and was before the convention's rules committee Friday morning when another Bush agent, longtime party insider Charles Black, got a thumbs down from Austin and started informing committee members of the Bush camp's wishes. In this convention committed more to unity in the quest of the White House than to constructive politics, the Delaware plan was summarily shelved.

Obvious benefits

The virtue of the plan was self-evident. Not only would it have given Republican voters in many more states a say about the identity of their party's nominee; it also would have stretched the nomination process out to permit calmer and more serious voter consideration.

It probably would not have forced the actual nomination decision into the convention, but it was at least a possibility under the Delaware plan, if more than two candidates could survive the primary marathon.

Under this year's front-loaded delegate-selecting process, states rushed to be first after the voting in the traditional kickoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire. They sprinted to a pell-mell decision by early March in which money, raised in unprecedented quantity by Mr. Bush, became an inordinate factor in candidate survival.

In politics, the old adage that if it ain't broke don't fix it doesn't apply if what's broke works just fine for the power-wielder, which in this case was Mr. Bush. The front-loading system served his interests well, his advisers seemed to figure, so why mess with it? Although it seems a bit premature to be thinking about what process would be best for his reelection in 2004, the astute political mind looking ahead is a wondrous thing to behold.

Nightmarish process

Putting a more substantive rationale on the decision to kill the Delaware plan, Mr. Black pointed out that nearly 30 states would have had to change their laws to permit a switch in their primary dates, and that with some state legislatures in Democratic control, trying to do so could have been a nightmare.

And, he said, if the Democrats were to retain front-loading and pick their nominee as early in 2004 as they did this year, the eventual Republican nominee would have been at a severe disadvantage, going broke nailing down his party's nomination over the longer haul. But that assumes improbably Mr. Bush will be challenged for renomination four years from now. Mr. Black also raised that favorite bugaboo, the possibility of unintended consequences, to drive another nail into the plan's coffin.

Tactically, you have to wonder, however, why the Bush camp felt it necessary to kill the Delaware plan in the convention rules committee crib when it had many more than enough votes to snuff it out on the convention floor, where individual delegates vote and large states obviously have more of them.

Many of the national committee task force members who worked so long and hard coming up with the fairer, less frenetic scheme were particularly irked that the Bush camp waited until the 11th hour to smother it.

Clear goal

But just as the burning desire in the party to retake the White House overrode the interest of some party factions to amend the platform on abortion and other matters, it took precedence in this instance as well. Even Basil Battaglia, the Delaware national committeeman who hatched the plan to give his and other smaller states a stronger voice, was philosophical about the outcome.

In the end, Mr. Bush wanted a convention of unity and comity, and that's what he's getting.

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).

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