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Jewish World Review March 28, 2000 /24 Adar II, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Will Bush, Gore Go for a Better Way To Pick Nominees? -- DELAWARE REPUBLICANS have come up with a compelling alternative to the current front-loaded presidential primary system. The question is: Will George W. Bush and Al Gore buy it?

Both parties are considering an overhaul of the much-criticized current calendar. A plan for rotating regional primaries has gotten the most attention, but Delaware's "inverted pyramid" idea may be better.

Under that plan, which some Republicans favor and has been discussed with Democrats, a group of small states would hold primaries in mid-February, followed by groups of progressively bigger states in March and April, followed by the biggest states in May.

As former Senator and ex-Republican National Committee Chairman Bill Brock (Tenn.) points out, "There's a lot of dissatisfaction with the present system."

Brock, now chairman of the GOP commission studying alternatives, says the present system "truncates the nominating process, drives good people out of the race before their ideas are heard and allows for nowhere near enough discussion of issues."

There's been a steady rush by states toward the front of the process, resulting in what amounts to a national primary on the first Tuesday in March, eight months before the general election.

The current system favors well-financed, well-known frontrunners. They may get challenged in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan, but their money and institutional support prevails quickly as the race then moves to states such as California, New York and Ohio.

Instead of the nominations being decided in June primaries or even at the national conventions, leading to a short fall general election race, the current system produces a lengthy, expensive contest in which each side may have to be savage in order to break through the public's boredom.

As one alternative, the nation's secretaries of state proposed rotating regional primaries. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary would be followed by four multi-state primaries in March, April, May and June.

For 2004, states in the Northeast would go first, followed by the South, Midwest and West. In 2008, the South would be first, etc.

The plan earned informal support from the nation's governors and was endorsed by Democratic National Committee General Chairman Ed Rendell, who called for Congress to pass a law to make it happen.

However, neither party is near a final decision and it's begun to dawn on people that the regional primary automatically limits geographical - and, probably, ideological - diversity on each of the primary dates.

An alternative suggested by former Democratic National Committee Executive Director Mark Siegel calls for rotating time-zone primaries, with states as diverse as Maine, New York, the Carolinas and Florida all voting on the same day.

But both the regional plan and the time zone plan pack big states and small states together, so that when the Western primary takes place, for instance, most of the candidates' time and money will be focused on California, not Oregon or Arizona.

The beauty of the Delaware plan is that it allows for - really, demands - "retail," hand-shaking, town-meeting politics in places besides Iowa and New Hampshire.

Under the original plan designed by Delaware GOP Chairman Basil Battaglia, Iowa and New Hampshire would be followed by a "pod" of small-population states including Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, the Dakotas, Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Idaho.

That group would be followed in a second pod by slightly bigger states including Maine, Nebraska, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi and Connecticut.

There would be three more "pods" for progressively bigger states leading up to a grand finale of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida, New York, Texas and California in May.

Under this plan, nearly half of each party's convention delegates would be selected on a Super Duper Tuesday in May instead of 37 percent in this year's March 7 Super Tuesday.

When the plan was tried out on Democrats, they objected that most states in the earliest pod had few minority voters. A variation includes the District of Columbia. Another proposed four instead of five "pods."

Some Republicans propose folding Iowa and New Hampshire into pods, undoing the tradition that places them at the beginning of the nominating process. But since both states have popular Democratic governors, it's unlikely that the Democratic Party will go along with such a change.

In fact, it's not clear what either Gore or Texas Gov. Bush thinks of any change in the primary process that worked for him. Bush's campaign chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, met with Brock on Tuesday to learn Brock's thinking.

Each nominee will ask: "If I'm president and somebody challenges me, which system will help me stomp him (or her)?"

Bush, presumably, will be tempted to keep an establishment "fire wall" in South Carolina. Gore, presumably, likes the five-week "dead zone" between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday that starved former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) of political oxygen.

It'll take bipartisan agreement to change things. So don't bet on change, even if it's for the better.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
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08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
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08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
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08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
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08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
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