Don't look now, but the '84 presidential race has started

Most Americans, busy watching Ronald Reagan settle into his sophomore year in Washington, may not have noticed that the 1984 presidential election campaign has already started.

Ironically, the race is under way earlier than ever before.

It has begun squarely in the midst of serious efforts to reform the presidential selection process. At latest count, some 80 separate studies -- 21 by major groups such as the American Bar Association, 42 individual studies, 11 state studies, and 6 federal and other studies -- were in progress on how to control the cost and length of presidential campaigns, and how to enhance the role of the major parties.

On the Democratic side, efforts to reform the rules of the race have themselves become the vehicle for the 1984 presidential struggle. Each rule can directly affect a potential candidate's prospects. In recent months, former vice-president Walter Mondale and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy have taken up the delegate-control battle that Carter and Kennedy forces waged to a near standoff on the 1980 Democratic National Convention floor.

Such maneuvering is part of an ''invisible primary'' system in American presidential politics. So far, Mr. Mondale has gotten the better of it. But other winners have been the unions, angling for more power within the Democratic Party, and elected Democratic officials, whose influence over the presidential nomination had so weakened that few attended the last national convention.

The driving force behind the Democrats' rules struggle has been the party's Hunt Commission Report on the presidential nomination process. The report is set for approval by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) when it meets March 26 in Washington. It's the most important of the 80 studies under way, in terms of immediate effect. Adoption by the DNC would mean a flurry of activity by lawyers , states, and the party itself to shorten the official caucus and primary season , add 850 delegate seats for elected Democratic officials at the 1984 convention , and loosen rules to allow delegates more last-minute weighing of candidates.

On the Republican side, too, the maneuvering for 1984 is in full swing, though in different fashion. There, the action revolves around the possibility that Vice-President George Bush could be the party's nominee, should President Reagan decide against a second term. Some Republicans want to prepare for this; others want to make sure it doesn't happen. The recent effort by conservatives in the party to undercut Reagan chief of staff James Baker III and his aides, along with efforts to increase the stature of national security adviser William Clark, are read by many Reaganites as a sign of shifting succession prospects in Republican ranks. Mr. Baker is a former campaign manager for Mr. Bush, while Mr. Clark is a long-time Reagan associate highly regarded by conservatives.

The Republicans have also been reviewing nomination rules, joining with the Democrats in such forums on the subject as that held by the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard last December, and in a study by the White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. The GOP's bylaws require that rules changes be approved at national conventions, so Republicans must wait until 1984 for official action.

Nonetheless, the Democrats' efforts to shift primary dates, which will often involve state legislative action, will have an impact on the Republican nomination schedule. Democratic officials say they have received at least tacit support from the GOP for some of their reforms.

Specifically, the Hunt report calls for shrinking the primary-caucus ''window'' to three months -- from the second Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in June. New Hampshire's primary would be allowed to stay seven days outside the window, and Iowa's caucuses 15 days. This would mean a likely 1984 nomination delegate hunt would start the fourth week of February, instead of the third week in January.

The report also would add 850 delegate positions for elected officials. Some 550 of the positions would be ''super delegate'' or unpledged seats -- giving elected officials such as congressmen and senators a crucial role at the convention. The remaining 300 seats for elected officials would be for delegates pledged to candidates.

On the plus side, the shortened time frame for the delegate race goes part way toward addressing complaints that the presidential selection process is too long. But the Democrats concede they have done nothing to reduce the number of primaries, or to space them more evenly. In fact, the Democrats are worried that even more states will try to move their primaries forward to enhance their importance.

The effort to crowd more primaries and caucuses closer to the late February-early March start will mean more money will have to be raised earlier, since candidates would have to be ready to start in several places at once. The 1980 system left some weeks after Iowa and then New Hampshire for fund-raising momentum to start.

''What they've done is trade off advantages against other advantages,'' says Herbert E. Alexander, University of Southern California expert on election campaign finance. ''The virtue of the old system was that, for a couple million dollars or less, you could run a reasonably good campaign, emphasizing Iowa and building more support later. In order now for there to be real competition, the candidates are going to have to front load money.

One possible solution would be to raise the contribution limit for a period early in the campaign, say to $25,000, as proposed by former Sen. George McGovern, Mr. Alexander says. This would enable candidates to launch their campaigns; then the limit would revert to lower contribution levels. A frequently mentioned base figure for individual contributions is $5,000, instead of the current $1,000.

In 1980, the major presidential candidates spent a record $106 million in the pre-nomination period, Alexander says.

''This is the earliest start of a presidential race in history,'' says Austin Ranney, director of political process studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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