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A Mess in Michigan: Squabble Over Delegate Selection Splits GOP

November 10, 1987

LANSING, Mich. (AP) _ Some old friends in the Republican party have stopped speaking to each other. Angry accusations are flying. One GOP gathering almost turned into a punchout.

Michigan’s Republicans hoped to attract national attention with a first-in- the-nation test of presidential strength in 1988. But the real attention- grabber has been a near-brawl between party factions over how the process should work.

The battle has pitted moderates, most of them supporters of Vice President George Bush, against a conservative coalition of Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp backers.

Back in 1980, the Michigan primary was held the same day that Ronald Reagan was declared to have enough delegates to win the nomination, rendering Michigan’s delegates largely irrelevant.

Then, five years ago, the state legislature voted to abolish Michigan’s primary election because the Democrats had switched to a caucus system, and the primary was deemed too expensive to stage for just one party.

So the state party chairman, Spencer Abraham, appointed a five-member committee to find a new way for the Republicans to select their delegates - and while they were at it, to try to make Michigan more of a factor in the national process.

The committee went back to a complicated system used by the GOP during the 1950s and 1960s, but it moved up the dates so Michigan would be among the first states to select delegates.

The four-step process began on May 27, 1986, the deadline for Republicans to file for election as delegates to county conventions. Those elections were held on Aug. 5, 1986, and about 9,000 delegates were elected for the Jan. 14, 1988, county conventions.

The conventions will choose about 1,800 people to attend the Jan. 29-30 state convention, where the 77 national delegates will be chosen. That gives Michigan a chance to bathe in the media spotlight well before the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses the following month.

But on May 27 of last year, thousands of people supporting Robertson, the longtime television evangelist, quietly filed to run for the county convention spots.

Field Reichardt, now an adviser for Bush’s campaign, got wind of the Robertson effort. He says he warned party officials and the Bush campaign, but was told not to worry.

″They didn’t pay any attention to these guys, to these very serious, very dedicated zealots who support Robertson. And they’re good, very good. They know what they’re doing,″ Reichardt said.

The county convention delegates weren’t required to specify who they support, so there is no way to tell exactly how many delegates each candidate got. Estimates are that Bush and Robertson split the majority, and Kemp of New York got a smaller share.

The Robertson and Kemp supporters then joined forces to take control of the 101-member state committee. On Sept. 15, the committee voted to bar some 1,200 officeholders and unsuccessful candidates - most of them Bush backers - from automatically being seated as at-large delegates to the county conventions. Some of those barred formed a committee and filed a lawsuit, trying to get the rule overturned.

All this has left a lot of bad feelings.

″I saw people who had been friends for years, who had worked on each other’s campaigns, barely speaking to each other,″ said Colleen Engler, chairwoman of Kansas Sen. Bob Dole’s Michigan campaign. ″I’ve seen a lot of party battles, but never anything like this. It was a massive civil war.″

″Politics is always divisive, but the divisiveness should be between parties, not within parties,″ said Lansing lawyer David McKeague, who headed the party committee that came up with the new system. ″I think we’ve forgotten that our objective is to elect Republicans.″

At a party gathering in September, observers said, a state senator who supported Bush nearly came to blows with Robertson’s campaign manager in a hotel lobby.

Ms. Engler points out, though, that it could all turn out to be a tempest in a teapot. The delegates won’t be bound to support anyone until the convention, and could change their minds any time.

″They are free agents all the way down the line to New Orleans. All of the Robertson people could say they are for Bush and all of the Bush people could say they were for Robertson,″ she said.

″If they were smart, the delegates will say ’Well, I am sort of uncommitted. And I’d like to be wined and dined by each camp before I make my choice.″

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