- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2000

There has been a lot of talk in this year's primary season about the need for reforms, but little recognition of the political reforms that have already occurred and their seemingly positive results.
Perhaps the most substantive campaign reform is the primary calendar itself, which has been frontloaded by states that want to have more political influence at the start of the presidential-selection process. So states like California, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Washington and others have moved their primaries up to give their voters an earlier and perhaps decisive say in the nominating system.
The result is a much faster-paced, bunched-up primary process that has shortened the seemingly endless nominating marathon that stretched from January to June. Reformers have long complained that the presidential campaign season was too long, cost too much and was beyond the means of underfunded candidates.
For all practical purposes, the competitive primary season will be over by mid-March this year, even though one-third of the convention delegates will still have to be allocated. That will leave a lot of time between April and the national party conventions this summer for the two designated nominees to regroup and spend more time reaching out to specific groups, defining issues, making serious policy addresses and planning for the general election in the fall.
There were those who said that the compressed primary process would result in the candidates racing from airport to airport and the nominees would be chosen before we really knew much about them. But, quite to the contrary, the system seems to have worked relatively well.
The lesser-known candidates certainly had plenty of opportunity to make themselves known to voters through a lengthy series of debates. Yet in the end, even for better-known candidates like Elizabeth Dole, an old lesson was relearned: Americans want their presidents to have some previous elective experience.
The old axiom that money is the great leveler and it is hard to compete with it was challenged. Steve Forbes, who spent $35 million, didn't seem to buy much influence for all his money and dropped out shortly after the New Hampshire primary.
George W. Bush spent more money than anyone, but he has been tested by Sen. John McCain, who was competitive in the money-raising business, and for awhile seemed to show that message can trump money. Unfortunately, the Arizona maverick got off message, whining and complaining about Mr. Bush's ads, and his campaign imploded.
Among the Democrats, Bill Bradley had far fewer resources than Al Gore, but threw a big scare into Mr. Gore's high command and raised a lot of money with his crusade for a significant expansion of government.
Despite the compressed primaries, Mr. Gore still had time to change strategies, mount a counterattack and put Mr. Bradley on the defensive.
The voters were not shortchanged by the speeded up process, as critics feared. They had time to sort through the candidates, weigh their claims and ideas, make judgments and, for some, change their judgments.
Much of Mr. Bradley's support evaporated when voters saw him doing what he said he would never do: Go negative. The former senator who had never uttered a peep against Al Gore during the White House campaign-finance scandals suddenly became outraged by it all as he saw his poll numbers fall. Not much principle and character in that.
Mr. McCain began his campaign by defining himself as a reform-minded man of high-minded principle who was inclusive, as a man who hated those who engaged in character assassination. Then the voters saw him come unglued as he spent more and more time attacking Mr. Bush over TV ads, picking fights with his party's conservative base, and playing the religious and race card.
Mr. McCain made the worse mistake in politics: Don't step on your message. But he didn't just step on it. He abandoned it in a fit of acrimony. And the compressed campaign scheduled efficiently dismissed him as a contender.
Meantime, the swiftness of the frontloaded system did not give Mr. Bush the automatic advantage that critics had alleged. Mr. Bush had money, he had the party establishment behind him, but Mr. McCain challenged the inevitability of his candidacy and exposed Mr. Bush's weaknesses in New Hampshire.
That also forced Mr. Bush to retool and revise, to talk about reform and his own record of doing it in Texas, even campaign-finance reform. It made him a better candidate in the end. You could see him improving week by week as a debater and as a campaigner. He grew more confident, more aggressive and more effective. His responses were sharper and fuller.
Some other unexpected dividends came out of this compressed primary process. They attracted record numbers of voters from both major parties and from independents. Notably larger numbers of voters were drawn to the candidates' Web sites on the Internet, where there was a raft of new information and data that the voters did not have at their disposal before, like details of their proposals and the names of their contributors.
All of this bodes well for the future of our democracy. It sends a healthy signal that many more Americans intend to become much more involved in the election process in the fall.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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