ALTHOUGH THE 10,110 Republican precinct delegates who just filed to run in Michigan seem too small a group acting too early to affect the 1988 presidential nominating process, it is just this thin slice of activists that, across the nation, determines the outline of the campaign between now and early 1988.
Under the arcane rules of Michigan Republican politics, the organizations of Marion G. "Pat" Robertson and Vice President George Bush have the allegience of roughly 35 to 40 percent each of these delegates, and Rep. Jack Kemp about 20 to 30 percent. The candidate who has a majority of them in 1988 will control the Michigan delegation to the Republican convention.
Already, the activist elite is passing judgment on strengths and weaknesses, and it is they who define much of the early issue agenda.
In terms of perception, if not actual delegate votes, the clear winner is Robertson. The president of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of the 700 Club demonstrated that the Christian right is prepared to wield significant power within the Republican Party, particularly in contests involving small numbers of people, such as in Michigan, or -- in states like Minnesota and Iowa -- party caucuses.
To detractors, Robertson's showing demonstrates the party's vulnerability to a tightly knit ideological minority. To supporters, Robertson's gaining rough parity with Bush demonstrates the vitality of one of the GOP's newest, and most important, constituencies.
"Pat Robertson's troops have now transferred from general election voters to party activists," said Ed Rollins, manager of the Reagan-Bush '84 campaign and proponent of seeking Christian support.
For the Bush and Kemp campaigns, the contest has produced an intensification of hostilities while Robertson has the luxury of watching from the sidelines.
Said Rich Bond, a consultant to the Bush organization, "Kemp tried to say 'I'm the heir to Ronald Reagan and I'm the one who makes it [the 1988 GOP presidential contest] into a two-man race.' He raised the ante without a hand to play. Pat Robertson blasted Kemp out of the water."
For Kemp, running third in the fielding of delegates was a substantial setback. He failed to prove his claim to be the legitimate heir to the Reagan revolution. Kemp pulled out the stops, expecting that Michigan would be a showcase for his campaign. The Michigan primary is, in many respects, tailored to just the type of activist that Kemp supporters say is their hard-core constituency: deeply committed conservatives willing perform the grunt work required to qualify as a precinct delegate candidate, just the kind of work supporters of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) excelled at in winning the 1964 presidential nomination.
In the process, Kemp supporters privately acknowledge they neglected the early spade work required for a strong showing in the next key state in the presidential sweepstakes, Iowa, where both Bush and Robertson have been developing strong bases.
If Kemp failed to use Michigan to showcase his insurgent campaign, Bush failed to capitalize on his support from almost the entire GOP establishment of Michigan to win a decisive victory. With all the advantages of the Vice Presidency and a political action committee flush with cash, Bush limped through the delegate filing process with what at best may be a plurality of delegates, nowhere near the kind of power expected of the apparent frontrunner.
"No matter what the numbers are," said Kemp spokesman John Buckley, "the fact is that there is a majority of conservative activists who in no way want the Vice President to be the nominee in 1988."
Arguing along similar lines, but reaching a divergent conclusion, Robert Teeter, Bush's pollster, argued that Robertson's display of evangelical political power in Michigan is likely "to scare the people in the party to death, and that is likely to help the Vice President."
In addition, the emergence of Robertson as a force on the right "makes it all the more difficult for other prospective candidates [including Kemp] to develop a conservative base against Bush."
"Pat Robertson rained on everybody's parade," Pete Teeley, a Bush supporter commented, in one of the more honest appraisals of the event.
For a Republican Party seeking to solidify the gains it has made under President Reagan, Robertson's success sets the stage for a two-year test of the party's ability to deal with the sharp tensions between its establishment wing and the newly mobilized fundamentalist Christians, the single largest addition to the Republican coalition in the last decade.
On the left, John Deardourff, a consultant specializing in moderate Republican candidates, contended that growing Christian evangelical power within the Republican Party represents a major danger to the future of the GOP, arguing that polls show an overwhelming majority of the voting electorate looks unfavorably on candidates seen as spokesmen for the agenda of the religious right. He is sharply critical of national Republican Party strategy designed to strengthen the role of conservative religious leaders: "The party is fertilizing the seeds of its own destruction."
On the right, the failure of both Kemp and Bush to come out of the first stage of the Michigan primary with a clear victory, along with Robertson's strong showing, has given the conservative movement leverage which leaders plan to use to gain increased influence over the nomination process.
"This sends a signal to people that the race is wide open," said a delighted Richard Viguerie, the direct mail specialist who helped bankroll many of the most prominent conservative organizations. "It really encourages others to get in the race."
Robertson's strength in Michigan, Viguerie argued, shows the potential of the Christian right to add new support to the GOP in a way that will "significantly and profoundly effect the future of the Republican Party," forcing all candidates to give stronger consideration of the issues of abortion and "traditional family values" promoted by conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists.
Howard Phillips, president of the Conservative Caucus and an ally of Viguerie's, contended that Robertson's strong showing will force Kemp to move to the right and "take stands on issues we care about."
The preliminary outcome in Michigan "could help Kemp and it will help us," Phillips said. "It's the kind of help [for Kemp] you get when you go to the doctor and he says you need corrective surgery fast."
Like many GOP colleagues, Teeter said Robertson is a force to be reckoned with . "He is the Republican Jesse Jackson," Teeter said. "I have not come to a conclusion whether this is a real problem for the Repubican Party."
Bond, similarly, described the fundamentalists as "the functional equivalent of organized labor in the Democratic Party." Bond added: "You just can't compare the intensity of the religious right to the intensity of the Republican activists. The mission [for the activists] just isn't there."