GEORGE BUSH won a great victory in Thursday night's county conventions in Michigan. Or did he? The official count shows Mr. Bush with 57 percent of the delegates to the Jan. 29-30 state convention, compared with 22 percent for Pat Robertson and 18 percent for Jack Kemp. If those numbers hold up, Mr. Bush will win the lion's share of Michigan's 77 national convention delegates. But the numbers may not hold up. In at least 28 counties, delegates walked out and held rump conventions, and many, perhaps most, state convention delegates will be challenged. To thicken the plot a bit more, the party state central committee controlled by a Robertson-Kemp coalition may set up a committee to rule on challenges.
So the number of delegates for each candidate and even the order of finish are still in doubt. But a few conclusions can be drawn. The first is about the strength of Pat Robertson. It's true that Mr. Bush's numbers were augmented by his successful courtroom maneuvers before Thursday's gatherings, and it's also true that Mr. Robertson's numbers were diminished by walkouts of his followers. But even so, the Robertson total was less than expected. So far there have been few signs that Mr. Robertson is catching on among the ordinary voters who will decide Republican primaries. The Michigan results raise the question, which the Iowa caucuses may settle, of whether he has staying power even among those who have been his strongest supporters. Both George Bush and Jack Kemp, in contrast, have held together and augmented their initial blocs of support.
"I don't like people stealing elections," Mr. Robertson says. Probably both sides violated the rules -- and in some cases there were no clear rules. But we see no evidence that Mr. Bush stole the election. His campaign's insistence on following the court rulings it obtained seems sensible, and its manipulation of district lines is the same tactic his opponents have used and is well within the bounds of political practice. The most egregious actor was a pro-Kemp district chairman who announced he was charging reporters $850 to cover his caucus at Elmer's Steak Pit in Wyandotte, then threw Bush supporters, including the candidate's son Marvin, out into the 5-degree cold and, finally, when he came up one vote shy on a roll call, reportedly declared himself and an ally entitled to a vote and gaveled his slate in.
There are many bad systems for choosing presidential delegates, but Michigan Republicans seem to have come up with the worst way yet. Mr. Bush's success tells us almost nothing about what the voters think -- the last time they had a crack at this process was in August 1986 -- and very little about the informed judgment of seasoned party leaders. It tells us something positive about the Bush campaign's resilience and skill and something negative about the staying power of Robertson enthusiasts. It will tell us -- maybe -- who wins Michigan's 77 delegates, but it tells us precious little about who is likely to be or who should be president.