1 primary day a month more sensible than ever ON POLITICS


NEW YORK -- After New York's raucous primary, you might have expected Gov. Bill Clinton to exclaim in proper New Yorkese: "Enough already." But after his final televised debate here with former Gov. Jerry Brown, this is what he said:

"We have aired our differences, and what I want to do is to make sure people understand it. You know, there are a lot of other states. For all I know, we'll have a half a dozen other candidates before this thing is over. . . . The last thing I want to do is to even have a label 'front-runner,' because 'front-runner' is about process and politicians, not about people and problems.

"If you look at the rules, just the sheer physical impact of the rules in this process, this thing is going to go on. You've got to get a majority of the delegates to be nominated. . . . People in Pennsylvania, no matter who wins New York or how it comes out, they're going to say, 'Hey, what about us?' So my answer's going to be, 'I'll be there. I'll be discussing change. I want you to be a part of it. Anybody else who wants to come and be a part of it will be more than welcome as far as I'm concerned.' "

Clinton was referring to the next primary on the calendar, in Pennsylvania on April 28. Obviously he was hoping he would win in New York and restore the sense that the nomination was his. But with Brown already saying that he was in the race through the primary in his home state of California on June 2, Clinton was making a virtue of necessity -- preaching a civics lesson in participatory democracy.

There was a tad of hypocrisy in Clinton's observation. For the previous two weeks, the voters in Kansas, which also held an ignored primary on the same day as the critical New York voting, had been saying, "Hey, what about us?" But the state was offering only 36 delegates on primary day to 244 from New York and 82 from Wisconsin, which also got short shrift from the two candidates, each of whom can count.

The only campaign appearance by either of them in Kansas was a late election-eve airport touchdown by Clinton on his way home to Little Rock from Wisconsin. It was the same on Super Tuesday, when voters in several Southern states complained, "Hey, what about us?" as the candidates essentially shuttled between Florida and Texas.

Since the beginning of the year, the answer of Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown to that same question from late-voting states has been, with the bark off, "To hell with you." He has argued that the party would be best served by "front-loading" the delegate-selection process -- holding more primaries and caucuses in the first weeks of the season -- so that the party nominee would be chosen early, leaving more time to prepare for the fall campaign against the Republican nominee.

The contrariness of the voters, however, and the tenacity of Jerry Brown, has already rained on Ron Brown's tidy little parade. The experience of this year, with 34 states having now voted in a space of only nine weeks, has been just as destructive of the party's image and of its candidates' reputations as any lengthier process would have been.

Clinton no doubt would prefer not to have to go on to the Pennsylvania primary, and others down the road in Indiana and North Carolina (May 5), Nebraska and West Virginia (May 19) and California, New Jersey, Ohio and other states (June 2). But he is correct in saying the voters in these states have a right to expect they will have a say in the selection of the Democratic nominee.

If anything, from the voters' viewpoint if not the party's, "front-loading" has proved itself to be disastrous. Since the high-turnout primary in New Hampshire, where the candidates spent a great deal of time spelling out their positions and differences, voters have stayed home in droves in the weekly, crowded rounds of primaries and caucuses.

If you take at face value Clinton's espousal of the right of voters to see and hear the candidates before voting, he is making a strong argument against "front-loading." The neglected idea of having only one primary day a month, with an equal number of states voting on that day, preferably in the same region to cut down on travel, makes more sense than ever in light of this year's experience.

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