The Democratic National Committee is preparing to reexamine the rules governing its presidential-nominating contest, and there appears to be little appetite for the kind of extensive overhaul or intraparty squabbling that marked similar efforts in the past.
"It would be a mistake," said DNC spokesman Terry Michael, "for the party to be pictured as more concerned about its rules than about the important policy concerns of the American people."
Still reeling from last year's presidential defeat and nervous about gains nationally by the Republican Party, many Democratic leaders say they hope any rules changes will be minimal.
"People will recognize that debating delegate-selection rules is fine, but that is not the bottom line," said Roland W. Burris, the party vice-chairman and Illinois comptroller. "The bottom line is electing a president."
In every post-presidential election period since 1969, the Democrats have altered the rules that selected their previous nominee, hoping to erase formulas that in all but one instance -- the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 -- led to defeat.
Critics of the 1984 rules said they were stacked in favor of Walter F. Mondale, the eventual nominee who lost 49 states to President Reagan. Critics charged that the rules diminished the chances of "long-shot" candidates such as Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the runners-up to Mondale.
Protests by Jackson and later Hart led to establishment of the new "Fairness Commission." So far, however, Jackson has said little about the panel. Further, his choice for chairman, former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, was rejected and, to some surprise, his supporters did not organize to win spots among the 40 commission members elected in regional caucuses.
Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. this week appointed the final 10 members of the 50-member panel, plus Donald L. Fowler, former South Carolina Democratic chairman, as the panel's head.
Kirk nominated four vice-chairmen: New Orleans Mayor Ernest (Dutch) Morial, Colorado state Sen. Polly Baca, Michigan Democratic Chairman Richard Wiener and Harvard Law School Prof. Susan Estrich. Estrich and Morial had been chosen as commission members in regional caucuses.
The Fairness Commission essentially will have to strike a balance between two forces.
One is the "one person/one vote" approach that allowed virtual outsiders such as former senator George McGovern (D-S.D.) and then Carter to gain nomination, outflanking and, critics say, alienating party regulars in the process.
The other approach gives preference to party professionals. It characterized the 1984 rules that resulted in the nomination of Mondale, a creature of the party establishment.
Democrats familiar with the commission said there is clear sentiment to lower the thresholds that determine whether candidates qualify for delegates to the national convention.
In 1984, candidates generally had to win at least 20 percent of the vote in a congressional district to qualify for delegates, but Jackson complained that this discriminated against him. Other Democrats now agree that it did and are prepared to reduce the requirement, at least for the early contests of 1988.
Many of those same party members, however, would prefer that thresholds remain high in later contests.
Democrats also seem inclined to retain regulations that in 1984 set aside 568 of 3,933 delegate slots for "unpledged" party leaders and elected officials.
Last year, however, the 191 congressional "super delegates" were chosen before any of the state caucuses or primaries, making them in effect the first contest of the campaign. The growing sentiment seems to be that they should be chosen later, if not at the end, of the 1988 process.