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CAMPAIGN ’96: OPEN CONVENTION?

11 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

PRIMARY RACES, ESPECIALLY the early ones, look so earnest and earthy it is easy to mistake them for truly democratic exercises. When Pat Buchanan walked away with New Hampshire last week, he took pleasure in arguing that The People had found their voice, jostled the conventional wisdom, spooked the party elders and voted their hearts.

That helps explain why a lot of Republicans decided long ago that too much democracy is a dangerous thing when it comes to nominating a President. In the next four weeks the game of presidential politics turns very serious, very unforgiving and very unpopulist. It’s affirmative action for party elders; if a rebel like Buchanan wants to be President, he could do twice as well as anyone else and find that even that might not be enough.

The reason for this is that the process–the calendar, the rules, the role of the Governors–is intended to favor the candidate sanctioned by the party. If all goes according to plan, Bob Dole should hobble Buchanan, the impetuous insurgent. But nothing so far has gone as planned, and party lawyers can imagine a scene like this: a fractured convention, with clumps of delegates nominally pledged each to Dole, Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes; more than half the delegates not legally bound to any candidate at all under various state rules; no clear sign of a nominee; the vice presidency up in the air; 20 or so Republican Governors pining for it; and open warfare between the centrists and the 30% or so of delegates who are conservative Christians. All turning in the widening gyre of television and a computer age. “I think it could be the best race of the century in terms of a nomination fight,” says G.O.P. consultant Paul Wilson. “And we get to watch it.”

Of course, this is the kind of chaos the party meant to stamp out. By any traditional reckoning, it was going to be over by the end of March, when 66% of the delegates are technically chosen. The tight schedule of 29 states in five weeks was designed to slingshot an early front runner into inevitability. Now it may not even save one from ignominy. Dole alone has raised the money for the ads and traveling necessary in a multifront war. He has $6.4 million cash on hand (although he is bumping up against the primary season’s legal spending limit); Buchanan and Alexander have roughly $1 million each.

But oddly enough, money may not be paramount in a field where four or five candidates insist on dividing the anti-Pat vote. That’s because the rules for selecting delegates are different in the primary states that come later in the race. Until now, the primary calendar has been an almost quaint exercise in good government. Almost all the delegates apportioned so far have been handed out fair and square, one man, one vote–the candidate with 30% of the vote got about 30% of the delegates.

Beginning last Saturday, however, with Forbes’ victory in Delaware, more and more races will be winner-take-all contests or modified versions of that system. As long as Dole, Alexander and Forbes are carving up the non-Buchanan vote, Buchanan can win large chunks of delegates without ever having to reach beyond an irreducible 30% base. As the campaign moves from New England, Georgia and Colorado on March 5 to Texas and Florida on March 12, the percentage of delegates awarded on a proportional basis shrinks. No wonder Dole strategist Don Sipple wants Alexander gone by then. “If we can have a two-person race by the time we get to the 12th,” he says, “the whole thing takes on a different disposition when we get to the Midwest.”

But suppose it remains a three- or four-man race right through the March madness. What would stop Buchanan then? Late last week the Republican National Committee counsel’s office was trying to quickly compile an updated set of rules governing delegate commitments in hopes of answering that question. Said a G.O.P. official working on the project: “Let’s just say the level of interest in this question has reached a heightened state.”

At issue is whether each state’s delegates have to obey the will of their voters. Some delegates are theoretically free-lancers: Ohio’s delegates must sign a pledge for their preferred contender, but party rules state that “they are not legally bound to vote for that candidate at the National Convention.” Some states have rules that bind their delegates on the first ballot (such as Arizona), or the first and second ballot (South Carolina), or until the candidate dies or withdraws or releases his charges. Some states allow a delegate to break a pledge if, as in the case of Alabama, two-thirds of the delegation agree to follow suit. The array of possibilities makes a hard number of committed delegates impossible to estimate, but party lawyers believe that slightly more than half are not bound on the first ballot. No one knows for sure. “And that leads to the question of whether these rules have any enforceability should some delegates run astray,” said G.O.P. party rule expert Ben Ginsberg. “What are they going to do–go out and get an injunction against them?”

The key to the process is the local G.O.P. leaders–the Governors in Republican-led states, the state party heads in the rest. This is where Dole’s assiduous courtship of that constituency could pay off. These top G.O.P. vassals essentially control their delegate slates. In Ohio, George Voinovich chose virtually all the people who would be Dole delegates. The same is true in California, where Dole and some other candidates have turned to Pete Wilson to fill their delegate slates.Wilson has done his best to put his loyalists in those 165 slots. What that means is that delegates who are pledged to rivals could be backing Dole (or whomever Wilson prefers by then) on the first ballot at the Republican Convention in San Diego next August.

In essence, the party, through its Governors, has a mechanism for keeping a lid on the turmoil. But it’s not airtight. If Dole starts to falter, delegates pledged to him through these surrogates, who may not be passionately attached to him, may cast their eyes toward putative saviors on the sidelines, like Jack Kemp or Colin Powell. Alexander could make a rush for the Governors, and they could turn their slates over to him. Then again, Dole might try to keep his coalition together and grab the nomination.

And so, a new campaign is about to begin, for the hearts and minds of all 1,990 delegates, as opposed to the voters. It is a job that consumes hundreds of people, who become experts on the names, addresses, children, hobbies, predilections, political debts and fondest wishes of all the men and women who will cast a ballot at the Republican Convention, as they try to pick off delegates one by one. These games take place even when the nomination looks like a landslide; in big battles like this year’s, the maneuvering will be mind boggling.

The current alignment of Dole’s planets–money in the bank, the breathless primary schedule, the loyalty of party bosses–would seem to leave him in an enviable position. The morning after New Hampshire, Dole’s top aides met in a private room at the Holiday Inn in Manchester and plotted strategy for three hours. In some ways, Buchanan had conveniently given them a strategy. For weeks Dole had been walking through his part, muttering homilies–“It’s about the future, it’s about ideas, it’s about our children”–when what he was really saying was “It’s about organization, it’s about money, it’s about endorsements.” But from the moment Dole conceded defeat in New Hampshire, his race was all about Buchanan. The strategy was to ignore Alexander, forget the prattle about new ideas and defend the shining city on the hill from the hystericals with the pitchforks. Dole didn’t have to give them something to fight for now that he could give them something to fight against.

With that warrior’s message, Dole seemed to find his voice again. He was not back in Kansas, but close. “I know where home is,” he told folks at a theater in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “You know me. I’m your neighbor, Bob Dole.” At event after event, he seemed to be sauntering down Main Street in his hometown of Russell. During his speech at Sioux Falls, he spied a white-haired retired Congressman in the crowd, and called out, “Hey, Dwight, how’s the hip?” Shaking hands after that speech, a young bearded man in a baseball cap with a crippled left hand reached out his right hand to Bob Dole’s left. Dole surveyed him, smiled conspiratorially, and said, “All you need is one good one.”

But while Dole appeared to regain strength, some of the 24 Governors committed to him have begun to talk among themselves about his weaknesses. Specifically, they have begun to wonder what happens if this Saturday Buchanan wins South Carolina, the gateway to the South, which Dole has called a must-win. If he loses, some Governors are privately saying, they would start to look elsewhere.

One obvious answer is Alexander, which is why the Tennessean is still hanging on. Unlike Buchanan, who counts on the media’s alarm at his success to provide plenty of airtime, Alexander desperately needs both some credible allies and some help on the ground. “They had no survival strategy,” muttered a campaign consultant last week. “They thought they would win or lose outright by now. They didn’t think three [third-place finishes] would keep them alive.” When Alexander failed to place second in New Hampshire, he lost his shot at the big-name endorsements his aides had been touting. Top Florida Republican Jeb Bush was poised to embrace him two days before that primary; but the family’s two other kingmakers talked him out of it. Jeb’s older brother, Texas Governor George W. Bush, and his father, former President George Bush, urged him to wait and see what happened in New Hampshire. So far, all three Bushes have remained publicly silent.

In the new game of winner-take-all, Alexander must pick his fights so he doesn’t spread himself too thin and win nothing at all. In New York and Pennsylvania, he doesn’t stand a chance because he’s simply not on the ballot. And Dole’s team is doing everything it can to keep him strapped down. “The Dole folks are really trying to crank up the Governors to freeze out Lamar,” says a veteran G.O.P. campaign strategist. That may not be too difficult: privately, some Governors complain Alexander is a bit too slick for his own good, and they resent his string of sweetheart deals that tend to come a Governor’s way but that many of them have nonetheless passed on.

Buchanan has made it clear he is not about to stand around while party leaders maneuver around him. If anything, many Republican leaders assume Pat won’t win but worry that Dole and Alexander will hit too hard at a candidate who has found a willing audience among the very voters the party needs most to carry both the presidential and the congressional elections this fall. Buchanan lost no time reminding the elders of this. In Tucson, Arizona, last Thursday, he stopped just short of declaring war on his party: “I would urge my critics and opponents to stick to issues, stick to ideas, stop the name calling because it is you who are risking the unity of this party, not I.” He has promised in the past not to launch a third-party challenge; but if this race has proved anything, it’s that there’s a first time for everything.

–Reported by Michael Duffy/Washington, John F. Dickerson with Alexander, and Tamala M. Edwards with Dole

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