Barely more than a third of the Republican precinct delegate candidates in Michigan support Vice President Bush for president and perhaps one-fifth support Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), according to new estimates from both camps.
These projections, based on telephone surveys this week of a sample of the more than 10,000 candidates for precinct delegate, confirm that Bush and Kemp fell below their goals in the first round of Michigan's devilishly abstruse, 2 1/2-year national convention delegate selection processs.
And those setbacks, coupled with the strong Michigan showing of television evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson and the increasing speculation this spring about a potential presidential candidacy by retiring Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), have scrambled the strategies, perceptions and form charts -- in short, the collective "early line" -- for the Republican Class of '88.
A nomination fight that had been viewed as a two-man joust between leader Bush and lead challenger Kemp (with others waiting in the wings for either or both to stumble), is now seen as more fluid and more complex.
"All bets are off," said Edward J. Rollins, a political strategist who headed the 1984 Reagan-Bush reelection effort. "The field is going to be wide open, and anyone who assumes a clear-cut process is kidding themselves."
In Michigan, operatives for Bush's Fund for America's Future reportedly have found from telephone surveys that roughly 35 percent of all those who have filed for precinct delegate support Bush, 25 percent support Robertson, 20 percent are uncommitted and 15 to 20 percent support Kemp.
That is far less than the 50 percent support that the Bush forces were shooting for prior to the May 27 filing deadline. Last weekend, amid reports that the vice president's political strategists felt blind-sided by the Robertson thrust in Michigan, Fund for America's Future chairman Lee Atwater dispatched GOP consultant Richard Bond, a longtime Bush hand, to trouble-shoot the Michigan situation.
Meantime, John Maxwell, director of Kemp's political action committee, said information from telephone surveys conducted by the Michigan Opportunity Society had Bush in the mid-30s in percentage of support, Kemp in the mid-20s and Robertson and those undecided at about 20 each.
None of these findings are official, nor will commitments to presidential candidates by the winners of Aug. 5 precinct delegate elections be binding. Still, the Bush and Kemp camps are expected to invest substantial resources into those precinct races, in part because to retreat would be seen as an admission of failure. Both camps also think that Robertson has filed multiple delegates in many precincts, meaning that his forces will be competing against each another on Aug. 5 and that his final yield will be lower than it now appears.
"He piled them high, but he didn't spread them very effectively," Brooks Patterson, a Bush supporter, said of the Robertson effort.
Most GOP operatives, in Michigan and elsewhere, remain skeptical that Robertson will be anything more than a spoiler for 1988, but they view Laxalt as a genuine threat and potential front-rank contender.
And so a new collective wisdom about the shape of the 1988 GOP presidential nomination fight is struggling to be born. Some of the theories competing for broad acceptance among the presidential odds-makers:
*Bush is the big loser in the deck-shuffling. Laxalt will deprive him of the most valuable single commodity he has: his draw on the royalist, line-of-succession loyalty in the party. "When the president says Paul's a good man and George is a good man, a lot of Republicans will punch each other in the ribs and day, 'Hey, he's really not for Bush after all,' " said David Keene, an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). And Robertson will bring droves of evangelicals into the Republican Party, who may ultimately vote for a Kemp or a Laxalt, but probably not for Bush.
*Kemp is the big loser. He took a high-stakes gamble in Michigan with a strategy designed to raise expectations, activate the conservative shock troops and cement his standing as first among the Bush challengers. "I never seen so much put on one horse since Godiva rode through Coventry," quipped Bush supporter Patterson. Poor Kemp (this line continues): He's been racing all over the country for years -- he's given by official count 395 speeches since January 1985 -- and still he's stuck at 4 percent in the latest Washington Post survey. Now Laxalt and Robertson will cut into his base.
"The next few months are critical for Kemp," said conservative Richard Viguerie. "Unless he sends loud and clear messages, other conservatives will get in."
*Bush is the big winner. Robertson will play the the role of spoiler in 1988, but the candidacies he spoils are those of the challengers. If Robertson can consolidate his base among the religious right -- which by some estimates could account for as much as 20 percent of the Republican primary electorate -- he takes away the very voters other candidates must have in order to mount an assault on Bush. Moreover, Robertson will frighten the traditionalists and they'll close ranks behind Bush.
*Kemp is the big winner. He's been taught a valuable lesson; don't raise expectations early. If he falls back into the pack; so much the better. That's where he belongs. He'll never be able to score well in the national polls during the precampaign phase, and they don't matter anyway. At about the same time in 1978, Bush was at 1 percent in the polls. Kemp will have his moment in 1988. Meantime, the only way he can stumble between now and then is if he sets himself up for it.
*The rest of the field is the big winner. Dole, former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr., former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and anyone else with a notion to run profit from confusion. From 1958-59, the last sitting Republican vice president to try for the brass ring -- Richard M. Nixon -- was able to consolidate his base and clear out the field. Bush hasn't and won't. In 1988, he'll pay.