AFTER months of jockeying for position, the United States presidential hopefuls finally have begun the four-month race for actual votes. Iowa and New Hampshire have had their moment of glory, and now it's on to the next round.
But what about those states way at the end of the primary election schedule?
Do folks who won't have a choice in the matter until May or June (when there may not be much left to choose) have any interest at all at this point? Are they losing sleep over whether Republican Pat Buchanan can do more than ankle-bite George Bush, or whether Democrat Bill Clinton has any other shoes to drop?
A survey of Democratic and Republican Party officials in such places indicates very little activity and only mild public interest in the race for nomination. "I would say it's less than usual," says Mark Gromek, executive director of the Republican organization in New Mexico, which has one of the next-to-last primaries on June 2 and where a Bush-Quayle reelection committee has just been formed.
"At the moment, there aren't any trends that you can even begin to decipher," says Vicente Ximenes, former executive director of the Democratic organization in New Mexico.
"It's a difficulty for states like this where the nomination is already in the bag," says North Dakota Democratic Party executive director Ted Quaday. Both parties in North Dakota are thinking of taking straw polls at their district conventions earlier in the spring just to try to generate some excitement, but GOP state chairman Kevin Cramer says that "it'll probably be a moot point by then" for Republicans.
"Some people are paying attention, but to be honest with you the masses of people aren't," says Al LaPierre, who runs the Democratic Party organization in Alabama. Many Alabama Democrats are attracted to fellow Southerner Bill Clinton, says Mr. LaPierre, but with the recent charges of marital infidelity and avoiding the draft, "it remains to be seen if it'll be a walk for Clinton."
This apparent lack of grass-roots interest is not limited to less-populous states with less to offer candidates. In New Jersey, where voters don't go to the polls until the first Tuesday in June, even most party activists "are just sitting back and watching," according to state Democratic Party executive director George Devanney. Only Clinton has done any serious fund-raising there, says Mr. Devanney.
If the race is close up to the end, such states "can be crucial," says Richard Kimball, director of the Center for National Independence in Politics, a new research and information organization in Corvallis, Ore. "But historically, the candidates are often known by then and the others have dropped by the wayside."
"Campaigning for the office is so enormously expensive," says Mr. Kimball, "that most candidates can't sustain a high-pressure campaign from beginning to end." Their strategy, therefore, is to pour time and treasure into early states, counting on wins there to raise money for the rest of the battle.
Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch notes that the large number of primaries today has lessened the influence of some states. Oregon was important to Thomas Dewey in his 1948 contest with Harold Stassen for the Republican nomination; the same was true for Eugene McCarthy, who beat Robert Kennedy in the 1968 Democratic primary.
"It's arguable that we might get to May [when Oregon holds its primary] with some indecision left," he says. "But the history of the past few years is that by the end of March and certainly by April we will most certainly know which candidate has a lock on the nomination because he has the requisite number of delegates."
Mr. Lunch also notes that in prior years, candidates had to court delegates, who were "real politicians with real power." Since 1972, he says, delegates have become "ciphers ... walking rubber stamps."
But if the run for the presidency is evoking only mild interest in late-primary states, that does not mean there is not a lot of political activity.
New Jersey is losing a congressional seat, and that means "a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on" among incumbents as a result of redistricting, says Democrat Devanney. Alabama is likely to have a black member of Congress because of a new district plan that must be approved by the US Justice Department.
Washington State (which holds its "beauty contest" primary May 19) has several open House seats, and incumbent Sen. Brock Adams (D) is in a real nominating fight with a former congressman and a state senator. New Mexico Supreme Court Judge Dan Sosa, a well-known Democrat in the state, has left the bench to challenge Republican Congressman Joe Skeen in a district with the potential for a large Hispanic turnout.
So whether or not their presidential primaries mean much, those states ignored in the New Hampshire winter will have plenty to politick about come spring.