Chossing presidential candidates: more reform ahead?

The 1980 presidential nomination race is not yet half over, but already the hounds of reform are baying in pursuit of the system. Recent polls have indicated that a large part of the American electorate is not excited about the prospect of having to choose between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in November. Yet the contention that this means the current delegate process must be defective is discounted by many experts.

The old approach -- with a few primaries to indicate popular opinion but most of the power in thegrasp of back-room party brokers -- would have yielded the same result in 1980, they say.

Whether it be Jimmy Carter or anyone else, denying the nomination to an incumbent president would be more difficult under the old system than with the primaries, the experts point out. And as for Ronald Reagan, national polls show he has been the clear favorite of GOP regulars all along.

Still, with 44.8 percent of Democratic and 46.3 percent of Republican delegates chosen, and two months of primaries to go, critics want changes. Among the proposals: space regional primaries monthly from January to June (instead of the current state-by-state schedule that jumps all over the map), reserving a large portion of delegates as uncommitted so a late entry in the race would stand a chance at the convention.

For the Democrats, who have argued about and tinkered with the nomination system the past decade, the 1980 process is more than a theoretical matter.

Michigan's "closed" caucus April 26, the week after the Pennsylvania primary, is raising a red flag for reformers. To avoid an open primary, which would have violated Democratic Party rules, Michigan Democrats returned to a caucus process. Because Michigan does not register voters by party affiliation, Democrats there decided on a special party registration for the caucuses.

However, only 41,700 Democrats signed up by the early Feb. 26 deadline. In populous Michigan, where Jimmy Carter took 1.7 million votes as a Democrat in November 1976, critics charge the new system is woefully undermocratic. The early filing deadline made the race for Michigan's 141 delegates into an organizational sign-up test between the United Automobile Workers union and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on one side, and the party machinery with Detroit Mayor Coleman Young behind President Carter on the other.

Senator Kennedy's supporters are considering a convention challenge based on what they see as aberrations in the delegate contests as approved by the Democratic National Committee. At least four primaries where the senator could hope to gain delegates are targeted for challenge: Illinois, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, and Wisconsin.

"Kennedy could force a 'purist' test of party rules at the convention", says William J. Crotty, Northwestern University political scientist and author of "Decision for the Democrats" (John Hopkins Press -- 1978). "Several states like Wisconsin are clearly out of compliance with rules that all factions of the Democratic Party had agreed to.Iowa and New Hampshire have been granted similar exemptions by the Democratic National Committee."

Puerto Rico's results already have been challenged by the Kennedy camp, which charges that individual Puerto Rican Republicans were allowed to vote twice in 1980 -- in the GOP primary and again in the Democratic primary.

The Kennedy convention challenge could allege that Democratic National Committee officials have tainted the outcome by interpreting rules in favor of the incumbent, Mr. Carter, Kennedy strategists say. They could combine this with a floor vote to free delegates from commitment to any candidate on the first ballot.

"There's absolutely no question the convention itself takes precedence over everything else in setting its rules -- over committees, party rules, even the President." Mr. Crotty says. "But Kennedy would have to be in striking distance of Carter to make it work."

Mr. Carter would have to be gravely weakened politically for such a tactic to succeed, Mr. Crotty says.

Ultimately, a convention makes a "political" and not a "legal" decision at its convention, say experts like Mr. Crotty and Austin Ranney, an authority on presidential elections at the American Enterprise Institute. The issue of binding delegates to prior primary or caucus results "would ultimately be decided over who would be the best nominee in 1980 at the convention," Mr. Crotty says.

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