Political historians, a footnote please. Let it be recorded that this weekend on a resort island in northern Michigan, a mere 1,100 (give or take a few) days before the next presidential election, it first occurred to the foot soldiers of 1988 that time was slipping away. Unthinkable in September of 1985? Think again.
The Mackinac (pronounced "Mackinaw") Leadership Conference of the Michigan Republican Party was supposed to kick off this state's 1986 races in the dreamy ambience of this manicured island where the transportation is by horse-and-buggy only.
Instead, it turned into a nasty little game of elbowing over 1988 trains leaving 1985 stations. The forces of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) here jumpstarted the action by announcing on convention eve Friday that seven of the state's 18 GOP congressional district leaders -- three of them Bush supporters in 1980 -- had lined up behind Kemp in 1988.
"Tremendously significant," crowed W. Clark Durant, a Detroit lawyer and Reagan appointee to chair the Legal Services Board. Durant heads Kemp's Michigan Opportunity Society, which is busy organizing this early-bird state at the county level.
The preemptive strike sent a little shiver through Vice President Bush's state organization, which had opted to keep its candidate away so as not to steal the spotlight from the state contests.
"I'm real concerned we're letting this thing get away from us," said Alfred Diebel, a Bush activist from Oakland County outside of Detroit.
By Saturday, the Bush forces had sprung into action. After a private strategy session with Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, who was the conference keynote speaker, they put out the word that within a few weeks, they'll unveil a statewide steering committee and assign a staffer from Bush's political action committee, the Fund for America's Future, to Michigan full time.
"We got tired of getting our face bloody and not hitting back," said Ellen R. Conaway, Midwest director of the PAC.
Can this really be the fall of 1985? Even some Michigan Republicans are beginning to wonder whether they've created a monster.
The party brought the early action on itself by adopting a multistaged presidential delegate-selection process in which the first step takes place next August with the election in Michigan of 10,000 precinct delegates.
The ploy has already had the hoped-for impact of building interest among the activists (a record 900 Republicans attended the biennial conference) and attracting media attention (see above and below).
But it may be getting out of hand. National Committeeman Peter Secchia foresees a scenario where the GOP's gubernatorial and legislative hopes "will all go down the tubes next fall" because all the activists, having just been forced to choose up sides for 1988, will be at war with one another.
With similar visions darting around the lobby of the Grand Hotel all weekend, much of the speechmaking here asked not whether the GOP could reach rough parity with the Democrats -- party identification polls in Michigan show it has -- but whether it can survive the perils of political prosperity.
"The best way to remain a minority party is to insist on purity," said Detroit-based pollster Robert Teeter, president of Market Opinion Research.
At the wrap-up brunch today, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) took delight in noting that neither Baker (Bush's stand-in), nor Kemp had bothered to camouflage their motives for addressing the conference here Saturday by putting in a pitch for tax reform.
"I'm not going to tell anyone," he confided, in mock astonishment, to an audience of 600. "But if word gets back to the president that the Treasury secretary came out here and didn't mention tax reform, his No. 1 priority, we got problems."
Dole brought his own PAC consultant along for the ride -- former Office of Personnel Management director Donald J. Devine. And the senator's PAC had a hospitality suite, just as the others did.
But Dole came clean about his 1988 designs. "I'm just here to fill in for Elizabeth," he said.