Unfulfilled Primary Promises

States that bumped up their schedules this year gained little influence

CALIFORNIANS are again frustrated. Bob Dole's decisive victories in multistate primaries across the South and New England have given the Senate majority leader an uncontestable lead in the race for the GOP nomination.

A strong finish next Tuesday in the Rust Belt could give him the 996 delegates needed for the nomination. Once more, despite moving its primary up three months, the nation's biggest state will exercise little influence over the selection process.

California isn't alone. States across the country bumped their primaries or caucuses forward this year to gain more of a voice, resulting in the most compacted schedule in history. Instead of dragging on until June, most states cast ballots in March. It worked for some - notably Arizona. But most failed to exercise more influence. Moreover, the ''front-loading'' has produced some unexpected results.

Candidates spent far more time than ever before in Iowa and New Hampshire, the traditional early-bird states. Funding, political advertising, and nationwide organizing took on greater importance. Voters in most states, meanwhile, had less time to assess candidates and fewer opportunities to shake their hands.

When the dust settles, it may become evident that the rush by states to preempt one another has dealt a grave blow both to the way campaigns are funded and to the current two-party system.

''Money and the media won,'' says Michael Goldstein, an expert on primaries at Claremont McKenna College in California. ''This is the end of something. The question is whether the traditional two-party system continues in its present form.''

Dole's successful bid for the GOP nomination is essentially a story of federalism.

The rise of Republican majorities in state legislatures and governor's mansions across the country in the past four years has enabled states to break free from the centralized rules of the Democratic Party that govern the presidential selection process.

The impact was immediate. Candidates were forced to declare as early as a year before the first primary in order to build their organizations and raise sufficient funds. Once the primaries started, the conventional wisdom went, there would be no time to refill coffers or organize support. That worked to Dole's favor. As the annointed front-runner throughout 1995, he was the only candidate able to assemble a national organization, drawing endorsements from party leaders across the states.

As it turned out, that base was more important than winning early. Dole will be the first Republican ever to lose the New Hampshire primary and still win the nomination. Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Lamar Alexander started off better than expected, but without broad organizations, they fell as fast as Dole rose.

The state-by-state tapestry itself was awkward. Colorado and Georgia, for example, voted on the same day as five New England states. Oregon voted along with six Southern States Tuesday. ''Sharing the primary reduced our visibility,'' says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster who helped organize the Colorado primary. ''Initially, we thought we would create more retail politics here. But we essentially became a trophy. We let Dole chalk up a quick win in the West.''

Critics of the frontloading argue that state legislators should not be in control of the primary process. States don't see the whole picture. As each sought greater influence, none foresaw the impact on fringe candidates. State legislators are also vulnerable to manipulation by the candidates. Bill Clinton prodded Georgia into moving forward its primary in 1992 to gain an early home-turf battle. Sen. Phil Gramm courted Louisiana similarly this year.

''This is federalism at its worst,'' says Tom Cronin, president of Whitman College in Washington State.

Mike Hellon, chairman of the National Republican Committee in Arizona, disagrees. He thinks Dole's advantage came as a result of the field. Mr. Buchanan's appeal has never broken 30 percent, despite his early success. Steve Forbes writes his own checks, but hasn't fared well since Arizona. ''The GOP has the correct position in respect to not directing the process from the top. I don't believe in national rules.''

Still, he and others are worried about the impact this race will have on the two-party system. Much of the concern centers campaign finances. Is it fair that a Forbes or a Ross Perot can spend an unlimited amount of his own money against candidates held to spending caps because they accept public funds?

Another problem, notes Goldstein, is the conspicuous lack of voter dissent. In the 1970s, Democrats imposed national primary rules out of a belief that voters should be given more of voice in the selection of party nominees. Before, tickets were brokered by party leaders behind closed doors at conventions.

Does the lack of dissent reflect the public's growing frustration with the two parties? Goldstein thinks so. ''In the 1970s, campaign-finance laws were imposed so that fat cats couldn't control the system,'' he says. ''Now, exit polls show that voters like Steve Forbes because he is so wealthy that he is not controlled by special interests. Twenty years ago he would have been called a fat cat who was undermining the system. The public doesn't have faith in government solutions,'' he concludes. ''We're moving rapidly into uncharted territory.''

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