Rivalries Cloud Michigan GOP Caucus

Times Staff Writer

In the political insane asylum otherwise known as the Michigan Republican presidential caucuses, it has come to this: A local party leader now wants to charge reporters hundreds of dollars apiece to explain what will be happening here tonight.

As far as anyone knows, no journalist has yet met the financial demands of Perry Christy, a Dearborn attorney and chairman of the Republican Party in Michigan's 16th Congressional District--and Christy himself won't comment. But it's not clear that it would do much good, anyway, because no amount of money will help untangle what has become the most complicated, unruly and downright bizarre political process of the 1988 presidential campaign.

It has also been the most prolonged. Nearly a year and a half after Republican voters in Michigan went to the polls in an August, 1986, primary to elect precinct delegates who were supposedly committed to presidential candidates, those 10,000 delegates will caucus tonight in about 90 county and congressional district conventions across the state to select 1,805 delegates to the party's Jan. 29 state convention.

Selecting Delegates

Finally, that state convention will caucus to try to select 77 delegates to the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, thus putting Michigan near the front of the line of states choosing national convention delegates. (Hawaii Republicans are actually first, with caucuses on Jan. 27. Michigan's Democrats don't pick their delegates until March 26.)

But don't be deceived if the Michigan GOP process sounds rather easy to understand. This is a system that has been used and abused for 17 months to suit the needs of the presidential campaigns of Vice President George Bush, former television evangelist Pat Robertson and New York Rep. Jack Kemp, and as a result has now been warped into an unrecognizable mess that all sides agree is likely to be sorted out only by the courts and the credentials committee at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in August.

As in any civil war, the party's internal battles here are bloodier and more bitter than any confrontation they might eventually have with the Democrats. Indeed, the Michigan process has clearly become the most visible victim to date of the fierce struggle between the religious right and moderate ainstreamers for the soul of the Republican Party.

Political Laughingstock

The ultimate consequence of the blood bath has been to make Michigan incomprehensible and thus virtually meaningless in the nationwide Republican presidential campaign. Originally, Michigan party leaders hoped the state's convention would garner national media attention and help influence the outcome of the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses; now, Michigan is just a national political laughingstock and a campaign footnote.

"It's ridiculous--the state party wanted to put Michigan at the front of the lineup in the campaign, and now it's likely that instead of being the first to choose delegates, Michigan will be the last," said John Long, Bush's political director in Michigan. "It's awful," agreed Kerry Moody, a spokesman for the Robertson campaign. "No one will get seated until New Orleans."

Court challenges of the rules governing tonight's conventions, which have been bent back and forth over the last few months to suit the needs of the rival Bush and Robertson camps, weren't resolved until late Wednesday--in Bush's favor. But Robertson's supporters, most of them Christian fundamentalists and party newcomers who see themselves as mounting a guerrilla campaign against the "country club" party Establishment in Michigan, are still threatening further appeals as well as massive walkouts to protest their courtroom losses.

Rival County Conventions

Rival Bush and Robertson county conventions--each electing supporters to the same delegate positions--seem sure to proliferate tonight, ensuring a credentials fight at the state convention. Although competing conventions have been announced so far in only two locations, the Robertson campaign predicts its supporters could set up as many as two dozen such gatherings at the county and district level tonight.

As a result, the state party has decided not to release any results from the county conventions tonight, because party leaders don't want to try to decide whose rump convention delegates to count.

"Given that a lot of these could be contentious, we will not be acting as a clearinghouse of information," said Rusty Hills, spokesman for the state party. As a result, the News Election Service, a private reporting service, along with the separate presidential campaigns, will be offering the only results available tonight or Friday.

Meanwhile, strange, shifting alliances, which have already turned the state party into a fratricidal battlefield, are likely to dominate the process.

Tight Race for Lead

With Bush and Robertson in a tight race for the lead in the delegate count here, they have formed bitterly hostile factions by ripping apart the Kemp forces, who hold the balance of voting power. Both Robertson and Bush are following the same strategy: They are trying to lure Kemp supporters into voting with them at closely divided county conventions in order to stack the state convention with their loyalists.

So the state GOP is now split basically in two, with the arch-conservative and fundamentalist supporters of a Robertson-Kemp coalition on one side, and the more moderate supporters of the Bush-Kemp coalition on the other.

Defections from one side to the other have become common, and resulting charges of bribery and political extortion have been flung by all, and the only thing anyone can agree on is that the state party is a shambles.

Of course, the Robertson and Bush forces blame each other for this state of affairs.

"The Bush people are trying to so muck up the system that nobody wins," says Moody, Robertson's spokesman.

"You can't understand it because these Kamikaze Kempies and Robertson crazies try to change the rules every time they lose something," counters Peter Secchia, Michigan's national Republican committeeman and co-chairman of the Bush campaign in the state.

"The real story is, this Pied Piper (Robertson) came down from the mountain and spent $5 million and got a bunch of Stepford Wives to ride around Michigan in BMWs and Saabs and change the rules all the time," Secchia adds. "This will go on all the way to New Orleans. They can't accept defeat."

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