Television evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson was the clear winner here today in the "political expectations" game -- and appears to have run at least a strong second in the raw numbers game -- of a complicated precinct delegate recruiting contest that until a few months ago had seemed a two-way showdown between the organizations of likely Republican presidential contenders Vice President Bush and New York Rep. Jack Kemp.
Amid a welter of conflicting claims from the three camps, Robertson said that about 4,000 of the esimated 9,000 Republicans in Michigan who filed by today's deadline for GOP precinct delegate were recruited by the state chapter of the Freedom Council, a group he founded to teach "people with Judeo-Christian values" how to become involved in politics.
However, Bill Phillips, executive director of the Fund for Amercia's Future, Bush's political action committee, claimed it had recruited half of the delegates who filed. W. Clark Durant III, chairman of the Michigan Opportunity Society, which backs Kemp, claimed that nearly 3,000 people were their recruits.
Because the candidates for delegate do not have to declare a presidential preference or indicate in their filing petition who encouraged them to seek the office, there is no official way to reconcile the conflicts. In many instances, more than one camp is claiming credit for the same recruit.
However, the anecdotal evidence suggests that Robertson stunned both of the more conventional politicians with an avalanche of last-day filings.
"Pat Robertson hit a home run today," said James Killeen (D), Wayne County clerk, who estimated that of the roughly 1,600 petitions filed in his county, half were brought in by Robertson's Freedom Council. "They dumped and dumped" petitions all day, he said.
Robertson, in a telephone interview from Virginia Beach, where he operates the Christian Broadcasting Network, called the results of the recruiting drive a "tidal wave" and said it "reinforces the fact that a lot of people would like me to" run for president. He is expected to announce whether he will seek the presidency later this year, but today's showing probably removes all suspense.
The precinct delegate slot is a lowly party position that has taken on great political import in Michigan this year because delegates elected on the Aug. 5 primary ballot will select in a three-tiered process that culminates in early 1988 the state's 77 delegates to the 1988 Republican National Convention.
The estimated 9,000 delegates who filed this spring is more than three times the number who have filed in the past. In many precincts, delegates allied with all three main camps have filed, meaning there will be hundreds of surrogate, small-scale presidential contests as the precinct delegate candidates go before the voters in their local precincts Aug. 5.
Bush forces were caught off guard by the Robertson thrust. As late as 3 p.m. today, an hour before final filing deadine, they called a news conference to project that only 5,000 candidates for precinct delegate would file statewide. But by this evening, state GOP Chairman E. Spencer Abraham had counted 7,500 filings, and he estimated that with 31 of the state's 83 counties still uncounted, the final figure would be about 9,000.
Bush forces here characterized the loser in the process as Kemp, who appears to have recruited the fewest delegates.
Kemp had campaigned in the state nine days since last fall (Bush had been in for seven days, as had Robertson) and had set out to embarrass Bush in an early test of organizing muscle. His showing calls into question his ability to consolidate his base among New Right political activists.
On the other hand, Bush, who had the backing of the vast bulk of state and local party leaders, may also be wounded by a showing in the 50 percent range. In 1980, he won the GOP primary here by 2 to 1 over then-candidate Ronald Reagan, and "he should have been able to walk in, lay his cards down on the table, and walk away as the big winner," Durant said. "The fact that he didn't get 50 percent is a clear rebuke to the vice president."
Robertson argued that Bush and Kemp had had a disappointing day. "The vice president came in here and spent all his chits; Kemp spent more than a year working the state, and yet . . ."