The presidential campaign of Vice President George Bush suffered a sharp setback here Saturday when an uneasy alliance between former TV evangelist Pat Robertson and New York Rep. Jack Kemp held together to push through a complex party rules change that should ensure a Bush defeat in next month's Michigan Republican caucuses.
But the bitter battle over the arcane rules change--which both sides warned threatens the state party's ability to unite behind one Republican presidential candidate next year--underscored just how Byzantine the Michigan caucus system has become.
It also showed why Michigan has not been able to supplant Iowa as the most visible early test of strength in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination, even though the Jan. 29 Michigan caucuses precede Iowa's by 10 days.
Back-Room Deals Made
The problem with the Michigan system is simple: It has almost nothing to do with convincing Michigan voters which Republican candidate would make the best President.
Instead, the campaign here has been one of back-room deals and parliamentary battles between Establishment Republican supporters of Bush and a group of new evangelical party members who support Robertson--with a few conservative Kemp supporters caught in the middle.
All but excluded from the process have been the supporters of the other three major GOP contenders--Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.--as well as nearly all Republican voters in the state.
"I think our experience over the last two years with this caucus system has made me a very strong supporter of a return to a presidential primary in Michigan," said State Sen. John Engler, co-chairman of Bush's state campaign.
Robertson Likely to Be First
Still, the Kemp-Robertson coalition's victory in Saturday's fight was real--the Bush forces fought hard to avoid the rules change. And Saturday's vote means that Robertson will probably finish first in the first big battle of the Republican presidential campaign.
"I think you have to anticipate now that Robertson will get a plurality of the state's 77 delegates," said Dick Minard, Kemp's campaign director in Michigan.
Bush's defeat also could relegate him to a third-place finish in Michigan, a state he won when he sought the presidential nomination in 1980. Although he leads the Republican pack in all national polls, Bush is also thought to have an uphill fight in Iowa against Dole. Consecutive losses in these early states could damage Bush's front-runner status.
In fact, the reason the Kemp campaign formed its alliance with Robertson was to deny Bush a victory in Michigan, in order to slow his momentum heading into Iowa and New Hampshire.
Legal Battle Predicted
Bush officials asserted that Saturday's rules change was illegal, and predicted a legal battle for control of Michigan's convention delegates, a battle that could continue all the way to the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in August. His supporters threatened to hold their own "rump" caucus system to select a separate delegation to New Orleans.
"Clearly, one of the most difficult issues now is the question of whether the action taken today endangers our delegation in New Orleans," said State Sen. Richard Posthumus, a Kemp supporter who defected from the Robertson coalition to join forces with Bush.
The battle Saturday between Bush, Kemp and Robertson came to a head in a divisive and emotion-charged meeting of the Michigan Republican Party's central rules-making committee, which has been controlled by the Kemp-Robertson coalition since a state convention last February.
The coalition had been planning for several weeks to exploit its control of the 101-member committee to amend the rules so that delegates to the Jan. 29 state convention are chosen under the same system that was used last February. The delegates to the state convention will caucus to select Michigan's 77 delegates to the national convention.
Defections to Bush
The Kemp-Robertson coalition seemed assured of an easy victory on the rules change until last week, when top Kemp supporters in Michigan began defecting to Bush, maintaining that the Bush camp had assured them of a nearly equal split of the state's delegation to New Orleans between Bush and Kemp. Posthumus, the leader of the defecting Kemp supporters, said he was changing sides to garner more delegates for Kemp than Kemp had been assured of gaining through the earlier deal with Robertson.
The defections touched off an intensive lobbying campaign, as Bush and Robertson sought control of a small but crucial group of Kemp backers on the central committee. Kemp himself opposed the new deal.
In the end, the Kemp-Robertson coalition just barely held together, winning by a vote of 52 to 48, with one abstention.
Before the vote, however, each side accused the other of double-dealing and back-stabbing.
'Can't Take That Away'
"We are selecting delegates under a system that seemed OK until it appeared that Pat Robertson would get the most votes," said David Thompson, a fundamentalist minister who is party chairman for Michigan's 15th Congressional District. "I resent being told I'm not a good Republican because I am a committed Christian. I am a good Republican, and you can't take that away from me because of my faith."
With the party so split, it was left to former Gov. George Romney, the founding father of the modern Republican Party in the state, to plead for reason.
"This is the road to destruction," Romney warned before the vote. "This is the beginning of a far more bitter situation for the party.
"Both sides are at fault. And against the religious backdrop we have here, let me say that any of you who is not guilty, let you cast the first stone."