The Democratic Party's latest commission on presidential nominations meets here this week with leaders hopeful it will ratify a set of privately negotiated agreements that would mean a modest overhaul, rather than a radical revision, of the 1980 primary calendar and convention rules.
The commission chairman, North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., held an unpublicized meeting just before Christmas with representatives of organized labor, the Democratic National Committee, state party chairmen, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former vice president Walter F. Mondale, and resumed the negotiations in Washington this week.
There was strong disagreement on one vital question: how many elected and party officials should be invited to participate as uncommitted delegates in the 1984 convention? Kennedy's representative, Jack English, wants no uncommitted delegates; the others want 30 percent uncommitted. While there is some flexibility on both sides, that is likely to be a matter of hard bargaining.
But according to the participants, there was broad agreement on other rules changes that would:
Nudge Iowa closer to the prescribed March 1 start on delegate-selection but allow it to maintain its favored status as the site of the first caucus, just ahead of New Hampshire's leadoff primary.
Bar open primaries like Wisconsin's, where Republicans can help pick Democratic delegates, and vice versa.
Maintain presidential candidates' veto power over the choice of their delegates, but free those delegates from the threat of being replaced if they break ranks on the convention floor. In 1980, backers of President Carter defended that "robot rule" against a challenge from the Kennedy forces in what proved to be the crucial test-vote of the convention.
Ease the proportional representation rule to provide some additional rewards for the candidate who carries a congressional district or state.
Hunt and others emphasized that these general agreements could come apart in the three days of debate and drafting that are slated to begin Thursday. Another three days have been scheduled in early February to finish the new rules.
But Hunt said that the private negotiations have cleared away "a lot of issues" and produced "a sense that everyone understands that we need a process that will give us a strong nominee with a strong coalition backing him, not just for election, but for leading the government."
Hunt is described by others in the discussions as the most insistent advocate of making close to one-third of the delegates uncommitted elected and party officials. He said in an interview that having large numbers of those officials "is essential. It is the key to the Democrats' appealing to the mainstream of the electorate and to providing the kind of peer review we need to have a winning candidate who can also govern."
The 30 percent uncommitted figure has also been endorsed by John Perkins, the new director of the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education, representing labor; Georgia Democratic Chairman Marjorie Thurman, representing the state Democratic organizations, and John Reilly, representing Mondale. That figure was recommended by the House and Senate Democratic caucuses.
But English--representing Kennedy--took the view that while elected officials are desirable, "I am opposed to anybody coming uncommitted." He acknowledged that the situation requires the Kennedy backers to be "flexible" in the upcoming bargaining, but said the pro-uncommitted forces would have to come down from the 30 percent level, something Hunt seems unwilling to do.
The issue of uncommitted delegates is further complicated by differences over the selection process. Senate and House Democrats prefer to select their own delegates--perhaps two-thirds of the Democratic membership of both bodies. But Thurman and others want the elected officials chosen by the state parties and counted in the membership of the state delegations.
Additionally, there have been rumbles from some women's groups of demands that half the uncommitted delegate positions be reserved for women, as is the case with the committed district and at-large delegates. Their argument is that the uncommitteds will be "super-delegates" in terms of influence, and since most elected officials are white males, women would lose influence unless they were guaranteed equality within this category. The discussions with Hunt indicated strong resistance to this proposition, participants said.
The decision on the number of uncommitted delegates is likely to be not only the most controversial but also the most consequential issue before the commission. The larger the number of uncommitted delegates, the less likely it is that anyone could sew up the nomination in the primaries as recent nominees have been able to do.
Reform groups that dominated the three previous Democratic delegate-selection commissions oppose having uncommitted delegates because they argue that is a step back to old-time, back-room brokering of the nomination.
Other changes are in the fine-tuning category, rather than a radical overhaul of the 1980 system. Earlier talk of reducing the number of primaries or grouping primaries on a regional or time-zone basis has been abandoned.
Iowa Democrats, according to their chairman, Ed Campbell, are willing to accept a change that would move the precinct caucuses in that state from the third week in January back to the middle of February, a week or so ahead of the New Hampshire primary, which would remain the first-in-the-nation, one week ahead of the March 1 starting date for all other states to start picking delegates.
Campbell said Iowa Republicans are prepared to accept a similar shift, and Hunt said that "if we can shorten the season by three weeks, that would be a help."
As for delegate loyalty tests, Hunt and others reported agreement on preserving a mechanism that gives the presidential candidates a form of veto on the delegates elected in their name. But if that power is preserved, the governor said, most of those with whom he has consulted consider it "insulting" to maintain the rules provision that allows the removal of a delegate who threatens to bolt on the convention floor.
Some commission members, Hunt said, would go further and remove the first-ballot-binding commitment for delegates, relying solely on the candidate right of approval to assure loyalty.
Finally, Hunt and others said there was broad support for what English called "a winner-take-more" stance on the proportional representation rule. One possible approach on this issue would be a states' rights doctrine that allows individual states much greater flexibility to have winner-take-all by congressional district, or direct election by plurality vote of single delegates, or some form of bonus system for winners.
This kind of rule, if adopted, would offset to some extent the diminution of the primaries' importance that would result from adding large numbers of uncommitted delegates.