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Greenfield Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He will provide weekly, Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.

Jeff Greenfield: A 'reasonably reasonable' primary process

February 16, 2000
Web posted at: 12:26 a.m. EST (0526 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- You know the story of the stereotypical Jewish mother: she gives her son a red shirt and a blue shirt, and a few days later, he shows up proudly wearing the red shirt.

"What's the matter?" the mother says. "You didn't like the other one?"

This is the way political observers regard the way we choose our presidential nominees -- no matter what process that may involve.

Decades ago, when nominees were picked at conventions by political pros, writers like Frank Kent argued that the process shut out the average American citizen. When primaries began to dominate the process, and the season ran from March to June, hands were wrung and garments were rent over the agonizing length of the season.

This year, when big states like Ohio, New York, and California moved their dates up, critics warned that early states like Iowa and New Hampshire would become even more important, providing unstoppable momentum to the winners, and rendering the big states irrelevant. And every four years, somebody runs a despairing view of whatever the system is, under the headline: "Is This Any Way to Pick a President?"

Well, guess what? If you take a look at the Republican contest, it just may turn out that the process has become -- dare I say this -- reasonably reasonable.

Put aside Iowa, since I think this year may have finally put that beknighted caucus to rest as an important player (Arizona Sen. John McCain skipped it, won New Hampshire; Democratic challenger Bill Bradley poured a few million into it, got clobbered, and has still not recovered. Memo to the Class of 2004 -- go directly to New Hampshire, do not pass Des Moines). And consider:

  • New Hampshire plays its part, giving a long shot a chance to connect directly to voters;

  • The wounded front-runner retreats to friendlier turf, where he has three weeks to rejigger his campaign and find his voice. In fact, the George W. Bush of Tuesday's debate was a scrappier, feistier candidate than the Prince of the Realm who glided through New Hampshire.

  • Whatever happens Saturday, the outsider McCain has another chance -- in his home state, and in Michigan, a state completely different in ideology and demographics than Arizona. Then come Virginia and Washington State, thus giving states in every region a chance to be heard.

  • Finally, one week apart, come two neo-national primaries in which many of the most populous states in the land have a chance to pass judgment on the candidates. And if the verdict is not decisive, the decision passes to the other major states.

    Is this flawed? I'm sure it is. But is it really deserving of our contempt? For my money, it accomplishes a good deal of what we want a primary process to do: give a chance to the long-shot, give a favorite the chance to re-group, and spread the power across states in every region, large and small.

    We could do a lot worse; in fact, we have.

  •  
    ELECTION 2000


    CALENDAR
    See how quickly the primary and caucus season will take off with this calendar.


    VIDEO
    Watch selected policy speeches and campaign commercials from the major presidential candidates.


    WHAT'S AT STAKE


    HISTORY
    If you have a Flash-capable browser, take a look at the history of key events during the primary season.


    CANDIDATE BIOS
    Quick takes on the White House hopefuls.


    RACES
    If you need to know who's up in 1999 or 2000 and what seats are open launch this quick guide.


    THE STATES
    Who are your elected officials? What is the past presidential vote and number of electoral votes in your state? Find out with these state political and election facts.


    POLLS
    Check out the latest numbers or dig back into the poll archives.


    WHO'S IN-WHO'S OUT
    Who is running, who isn't running and who has already dropped out? Check out our tally sheet.


    FOLLOW THE MONEY
    How much money have the candidates raised? Here are their quarterly reports to the Federal Election Commission.


    E-MAIL UPDATES
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    Tuesday, February 15, 2000


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