MERRIMACK, N.H. — LAURENCE RADWAY, a critic of the New Hampshire primary, explains it this way: "Ice cream is good, but too much ice cream is bad...."
Dr. Radway, professor emeritus at Dartmouth College and a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman, says the hectic primary process is "carrying democracy too far."
He would like to see party leaders have far greater influence in picking presidential nominees.
Now that New Hampshire has gone to the polls, the age-old debate is being renewed over America's jerry-built system for picking its presidential nominees. The primaries' frenetic pace, the intense media coverage, the scandals, the mud-slinging, the high costs, and the torrent of TV ads are hailed by some, denounced by others.
In contrast to Radway, Emmett Buell Jr. of Denison University in Granville, Ohio, an expert on the presidential election process, praises the primary system for airing important issues such as national health care.
A leading Democrat, noting that President Bush was forced by his primary opponent, Patrick Buchanan, to meet people face-to-face and defend his economic record in this depressed state, also rejects criticism of the system.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: "New Hampshire personalizes the presidency. Without New Hampshire requiring candidates to talk about their records and their personal lives, we would wind up with all sorts of surprises in the fall. It provides an essential screening effect."
He noted: "The primary also keeps selection of the next president away from the dealmakers in the back rooms. We had 36 Democratic candidates running this time. No one was shut out."
Radway remains unhappy, however. He has watched this system evolve since 1952, when Sen. Estes Kefauver (D) of Tennessee embarrassed President Harry Truman here and forced him from the race.
Radway staged the first New Hampshire presidential primary debate here in 1976. But he doesn't think the system is working. The professor, who supports Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas for the Democratic nomination, points to the brohaha over the governor's alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers as a typical flaw. The Clinton story, which first aired in a tabloid newspaper, sharply eroded the governor's strength over a three-week period.
"Even if you assumed these charges are true, you are chasing little rabbits when a rogue elephant [economic decline] is destroying the countryside.... It trivializes the campaign," Radway says. He thinks party officers and elected officials should have more influence over selecting the parties' nominees.
"If a plurality of the governors of the country think Clinton is the best, that should stand for something," he says.
Bob Sittig, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, calls the primary process "unnatural" and "artificial." He says: m not sure how we got ourselves into this. The candidates are chewed up, and the system spits out all but one."
Further, Professor Sittig complains, tiny New Hampshire, being first, has so much clout that the process "is over in the first one-third of the first inning."
Yet others revel in the up-close contact between voters and candidates here. An estimated 1 in 6 Republican voters, for example, personally saw one of the two major GOP candidates this year. Virtually every city and town had a presidential-candidate visit from either a Republican or a Democratic contender.
Chuck Weed, a political scientist at Keene State University in Keene, N.H., says the primaries are an important outlet for voter expression, especially when one doesn't want to support a mainstream candidate. Professor Weed, for example, backed US Rep. John Anderson for president in 1980 and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988. This year he decided to write in the name of consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
Weed says: "In the general election, we vote for the lesser of two evils, but in the primary we can vote our values and our conscience."
Even a grass-roots primary like New Hampshire's, however, fails to fully express public frustration with Washington, Weed says. "Anyone who seems to be a danger to [large] economic interests is screened out" by the primary process because of the cost of running a campaign, and because political causes, such as the environment, are subordinated in favor of the status quo.