- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

In the mad scramble among states to determine which will play a major role in the 2008 presidential primaries and caucuses, we may be doing serious harm to our presidential nominating process.

California, Florida, Nevada, and more states to come, are elated by the prospect of playing a major role in selecting presidential nominees, and they envision millions of dollars in television and campaign revenue. Before this year is out, there may be more than 23 states voting in January and early February.

The biggest question, however, is: Does this help our selection of the strongest possible nominees for the president of the United States? I believe the answer is no.

The nation needs shorter presidential campaigns, not longer ones such as we are experiencing at this early date, a date so early that some in New Hampshire may vote absentee before the year 2007 is out.

In recent years, each presidential campaign has become more costly, and clearly 2008 will be the most expensive of all. Hillary Clinton set a high bar when she recently raised $2.5 million in one night in Hollywood. That is just the beginning. She led all contenders by raising $26 million during this year’s first quarter, and total fund-raising for the six leading Democratic and Republican candidates in 2007 already exceeds $110 million.

The candidates who benefit most from surprisingly large amounts of funds raised are Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney. Mrs. Clinton’s lead was expected, but Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney exceeded most forecasts.

Mr. Obama’s $25 million raised from 100,000 donors lifts him from the perception of an early “flash in the pan” to a serious contender. Mr. Romney, who appears to be fighting against a negative New York Times bias, has raised $20 million and exceeds all Republicans, including the early favorite John McCain. He now has the funds to broaden his campaign and gain needed name recognition.

Depending on which way you count, 20 candidates now seek the presidency. With the high cost of elections in large states such as California and New York, many may be eliminated before they have a fair national chance to discuss their major views on the presidential issues. The New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses will draw the usual full slate of candidates, and winners will be hailed but their impact could be lost in one fell swoop Feb. 5, when California and other large states will vote.

In California, Republicans have gone beyond moving the election date to Feb. 5, they will award convention delegates by congressional districts rather than by the traditional winner-take-all basis. That means California may well be represented at the convention by delegates representing several candidates, not one. In all likelihood, the delegation will be unified by old-fashioned boss politics, decided in closed session at the convention. Popular vote will mean little if anything.

The process of nominating candidates for the presidency has changed frequently over the years. The days of lengthy debates, such as those between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois senatorial contest, are mentioned each year when televised debates are discussed. But that time is long gone, and so are the “boss politics” and “smoke-filled rooms” dominant at the turn of the century.

When Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ran for the presidency in 1952, there were only nine primary elections, and little New Hampshire was the state with the most dominant effect. In the 1970s, there was major discussion among both Democrats and Republicans about later primary elections, and national conventions moved back to September. Along came Gov. Jimmy Carter who ran a four-year campaign that changed his position from an unknown, small state governor to the presidency and the thought of shorter campaigns disappeared.

Campaigning has changed completely. Television, negative advertising and fund-raising are the dominant factors today. Candidates fly into town, hold a brief press conference and spend time with wealthy “fat cats,” rarely seeing the public in massive rallies or town meetings. Except for polls, they lose touch with the voters.

With the new rash of early primary elections, campaign managers will face entirely new decisions. None can afford to campaign fully in the many large and small early primaries about to be conducted. Television will substitute for personal appearances. A key question will be whether the early emphasis continues to focus on New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina with the hope a strong showing in those traditionally early states will affect the upcoming larger states such as California, Florida and New York. Will the candidates need to spend their early time and money on the big states with dominant numbers of delegates and ignore tradition such as Iowa? Can a win in a large state give a candidate the media thrust to become the leading candidate? New York and California are largely Democratic. How does that affect Republican voters? How does that big-state philosophy help pick a candidate who is popular in the Midwest or the Mountain States? What will the effect be from new use of the Web?

It is too late to change the election process for 2008, but there is time for both parties to consider a more equitable future process of selection.

Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, that state’s Republican leader Jerry Parsky and many others in both political parties have supported a plan based on shorter campaigns and elections based on regions, not single states.

If both political parties agreed, the nation could be divided into four regions. States could select their own method of nominating but vote in regional clusters during the region’s separate times at bat. The order of the elections would rotate each four years with the first region voting in mid-June and the last in mid-August. National conventions could be held in September with the parties alternating lead roles.

Such a process would shorten the campaigns and give each area of the country an equal opportunity for each state to determine its favorite candidate or candidates by caucus or primary vote. Debates could focus on regional as well as national issues.

Whatever policy the nation chooses to follow in selecting nominees for the presidency, it should be clear we do not need longer and more expensive negative campaigns that encourage influence peddling.

There is one other major problem — negative advertising. That ignores key issues and stresses deception. Our Constitution is strengthened by its protection of free speech, and that is essential to our democratic process. That means the only way to decrease the attack-dog strategies is for the voters to turn the negative advertising off — reject it. We all talk about how bad negative and often false advertising is, but we keep reacting to it. The answer would be for the voters to support the cleanest campaign, not the hardest-hitting.

Unfortunately, that kind of voter reaction is slow in coming.

Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, retired editor in chief of Copley Newspapers and former Nixon White House director of communications.

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