By 4 p.m. Tuesday, Karen Czernel and thousands of other Michigan Republicans will file petitions nominating themselves to run for precinct delegate this summer.
That mundane act of declaration for that lowliest of party positions will kick off a process that, 26 months and multiple gyrations later, will decide how Michigan's 77 votes are cast at the 1988 Republican National Convention.
High-stakes presidential nomination politics has never gotten under way so early before -- not here or anywhere else. Nor has one state's delegate selection system ever been more ingeniously concocted to lure more candidates into investing more early time, money and organization for returns more speculative.
On the eve of the filing deadline, despite months of feverish recruiting by organizations allied with three of the likely GOP presidential candidates, no one is sure who's ahead. The same situation could well apply 20 months from now, on the eve of the state GOP convention -- for from start to finish, in Michigan's system no delegate is ever bound to a candidate.
Nor will any delegate ever have to worry about hewing to public opinion. Michigan's GOP process leaves virtually no room for the voters at any point along the way. There will be no Republican caucus or primary in 1988; this is a pure convention system.
"The real winner is going to the Michigan Republican Party," said E. Spencer Abraham, the aggressive young state party chairman who hit upon a way to expand his base of party foot soldiers -- first by turning presidential candidates into recruiting agents, then by forcing them to spend the better part of two years "romancing" their recruits. In years past, only about 3,000 Michigan Republicans served as precinct delegates. This year, with the new incentives, it is estimated that from 5,000 to 15,000 will file for the roughly 13,500 slots that will be filled in the state's regular Aug. 5 primary.
Since the great bulk of these delegates will run unopposed, the name of the game has been recruitment. (In precincts where more than one person files for a delegate slot, the voters will have a choice this Aug. 5, but it will be a blind one: delegates will not be identified on the ballot by presidential preference).
Organizations associated with Vice President Bush, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and television evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson have between them already invested more than $500,000 this year recruiting people like Czernel to run for precinct delegate, and the three undeclared candidates have trekked in and out of Michigan enough this spring to call it a second home.
The yield is highly problematic, however. For one thing, up to half of the delegates are expected to remain uncommitted -- politically as well as legally -- so they can extract every last drop of courtship from the men who would be president.
For another, what began as a seemingly straightforward test of organizing muscle between the establishment Bush and insurgent Kemp has been thrown out of whack by the powerful thrust in the past few months here of Robertson -- the Christian Broadcasting Network founder who some believe stands poised to give black eyes to both of the conventional politicians.
"You're damn right we're both scared," said one Kemp organizer, who asked not to be identified. "Robertson's people aren't doing this for politics. They're doing it for the Almighty, and that's a tough horse to go up against."
Here in heavily Republican Oakland County just outside Detroit, the county GOP chairman is for Kemp, while the vice chairwoman and most of the rest of the local Republican power structure is with Bush. But the talk is of Robertson.
"We're in a battle for the soul of the party," said Czernel, chairwoman of the Troy GOP. "It's between the Grand Old Party and the Religious Right."
Robertson's Freedom Council, a group he founded in 1981 to teach Christians how to get involved in the political process, has recruited delegates to run for 30 of the 32 available slots in Czernel's community -- including the slot she is seeking. Czernel said she believes that even if these supporters cannot elect Robertson president, they are out to take over the local party -- just as fundamentalist Christian political activists have in scattered areas around the country.
"They're in a panic and they're overreacting," said Marlene Elwell, state coordinator for the Freedom Council, which operates with a staff of 12, finding recruits through old-fashioned pyramid-style phoning of Christian congregations and new-fangled telemarketing techniques at which Robertson's "700 Club" is adroit.
Overreaction or not, Bush and Kemp operatives have been busy spreading the word that Robertson hurts the other guy more than them.
The Bush line: "If Kemp finishes behind Robertson in this state, he's history," said L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County prosecutor and a leading Bush supporter.
The Kemp line: "What is going to be of significance is the number of people who get involved who won't be supporting the front-runner," said Kemp press secretary John Buckley.
Kemp forces say that those drawn into the process by Robertson are far more likely to support Kemp, with his strong stance against abortion, than Bush, whose reviews among abortion opponents tend to be mixed. Bush forces counter that precinct delegates who say they are uncommitted are really closet Bushies.
This kind of verbal jousting can -- and will -- go on right through 1988, for this is a drawn-out contest with no official scorekeeper. Once all the precinct delegate petitions are assembled and 15 signatures on each validated, state newspapers are expected to survey delegate candidates -- but they may find enough uncommitteds to leave room for claims and counterclaims.
It will not be until early 1988 that the process takes a final shape. In mid-January 1988, precinct delegates will meet in county or district conventions to choose delegates to a state convention that will be held two or three weeks later to choose delegates to the national convention. (These will be the first national convention delegates selected in 1988 unless Iowa or another state decides to leapfrog ahead.)
Each of the 18 congressional districts in the state will be apportioned three national convention delegates, and an additional 23 at-large national delegates will be selected by the state convention. So winning a majority of the precinct delegates in the heavily black, light-Republican 1st Congressional District in Detroit will be almost as valuable as winning the majority of delegates in the solid-Republican 18th of Oakland County.
But for the next year and a half, winning and losing will be a fuzzy thing all around -- not just for the three contestants already in the game but for other potential candidates -- Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), former senator Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr., former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Delaware governor Pierre S. du Pont IV -- who have been in and out of Michigan this year speechifying but not recruiting.
"They're sort of circling like sharks," said a Kemp organizer. "If they smell blood, if one of the others falters between now and 1988, they'll move in on their delegates."
There will be nothing in the rule book to stop them.