IN THE PAST week there have appeared the first glimmerings of hesitation in what had been a headlong rush toward a southern regional presidential primary. It is about time. The idea has initial appeal, especially to southern politicians who have committed themselves to the Democratic label but feel threatened by the unpopularity of national Democratic tickets. When a group of southern legislators floated the idea of having 11 other states join Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Oklahoma in holding their primaries and caucuses the week after New Hampshire, many southerners reacted enthusiastically. Kentucky has now enacted an early primary, and a bill will shortly reach the desk of Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles.
But some politicians may be having second thoughts. Texas Gov. Mark White, though he supports the idea, says he won't call a special session of the legislature this summer to consider it. Mr. White has other reasons for keeping the legislators out of Austin (the state has lost more than $1 billion in revenue from recent oil price drops); and the legislature could easily act next year -- if Mr. White wins reelection, if it still seems like a good idea to legislators, if it is not pigeonholed by backers of some presidential candidate. Texas, the third-largest state, is critical to the regional primary idea.
Meanwhile, at a Harvard conference last weekend, the chairman of the Democrats' fairness commission, South Carolinian Donald Fowler, argued that the South was no longer so different from the rest of the country. Marylander Mark Siegel warned that holding a primary in a dozen or more states so soon would increase rather than decrease the leverage of Iowa and New Hampshire. And what if, as threatened, the Rocky Mountain and other states decided to vote the same day, making the primary neither southern nor regional?
The one southern regional primary advocate present, Tennessee Democratic chairman Richard Lodge, replied lamely that the change "couldn't be worse than the current system." But it could. Almost everyone thinks a single national primary would be a dreadful way for a diverse nation to choose nominees, especially from a list of contenders who are not known in depth. Yet a de facto national primary is what cumulative decisions, taken by one legislature and then another and another, could produce. We have argued that those who want to strengthen southern influence should space out their primaries and caucuses over three weeks, rather than concentrate them on a single day. Certainly legislators and party officials considering the proposal should stop and ponder how it would work and what untoward consequences it might have.