GRAND RAPIDS, MICH., JAN. 29 -- As the 17-month struggle for Michigan's 77 GOP delegates comes to an end, backers of the presidential campaign of Pat Robertson today charged that Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) sold out conservative principles, allowing Vice President Bush to "steal" a victory here.
In fact, however, Robertson is coming out on the losing end here because he and his strategists proved less adept at making political deals, of living up to those deals and getting them past court tests.
The fight to win a plurality of Michigan's delegates -- the first to be chosen in the nation -- has been conducted much like a closed meeting of the Chicago City Council. Initially, Robertson showed a talent for backroom negotiation that would have brought a smile to the face of the late Chicago mayor Richard Daley; but, as this bizzare and often destructive process comes to an end, Robertson has been left embittered and angry. Instead of the 44 delegates Robertson last year boasted he would get, it appears sure that he will get 12.
Although there were angry walkouts from at least five district caucuses tonight, Bush's control was demonstrated when the credentials committee voted 20 to 8 for a pro-Bush chairman. Robertson committee members stalked out. Marc Nuttle, Robertson's campaign manager, announced that Robertson supporters will hold a rump convention on Saturday.
In August 1986, Robertson matched an incumbent vice president to elect some 9,000 "precinct delegates.". Each won roughly 40 to 45 percent of the delegates. Kemp was third in a fight which he had earlier made a test of his candidacy.
As soon as the polls closed in that election, public involvement in the selection of Michigan delegates ended. Since then, the battleground was limited to the 9,000 precinct delegates and some 1,200 Republicans nominated in 1986 for local offices who legally have the same status as the delegates.
These 9,000 delegates and 1,200 nominees, who were chosen without any public identification of their loyalties, were empowered to pick the 77 national delegates.
Since neither Robertson nor Bush had a majority, Kemp's 10 percent to 20 percent of the precinct delegates was crucial. Robertson quickly moved to cut a deal with Kemp under which Robertson would get a plurality, Kemp would come in second and Bush would trail in an embarrassing third place.
The deal offered Robertson the chance to begin the delegate-selection process in 1988 with a clear-cut victory, building momentum for his drive in the Iowa caucuses. For Kemp, the deal turned defeat into an acceptable showing.
The arrangement appeared to be working perfectly until early 1987, when Robertson made the surprising claim that he would get 44 delegates. The claim sent a chill down the spines of Kemp's strategists. Bush, they recognized, appeared likely to win a minimum of 18 delegates under the arcane system used here. Bush's 18 and Robertson's 44 totaled 62 of the 77 delegates, leaving only 15 for Kemp.
As the Kemp forces grew wary, a second development broke the Kemp-Robertson alliance. Early in 1987, leaders of all the campaigns signed an agreement that, with minor exception, declared that each camp would live under existing party rules to govern selection of 1,805 representives to the state convention meeting here now.
When, however, the Bush organization began using those agreed-upon rules to threaten the Robertson-Kemp majority, the Robertson organization, and some of the Kemp supporters, decided to junk the commitment, and rewrite party rules. Challenged on their rule rewriting in one court after another, the Robertson group lost every time, from state courts to federal courts.
This abandonment of the ground rules threatened to fracture permanently the already divided Michigan Republican Party. For state Sen. Dick Postumus, the then-Kemp Michigan chairman and a politician with ambitions for statewide office, the breaking of what amounted to a promise with key state Republicans committed to Bush endangered his ability to get party backing for future contests. He left the Robertson-Kemp alliance, in what became a steady flow of Kemp backers from the alliance into the Bush camp.
Now, if all goes as expected, Bush will get 35 delegates, Kemp 30 and Robertson 12. These results have little bearing on public opinion. A poll published Monday by the Detroit News showed 54 percent of Michigan Republicans support Bush, 19 percent back Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.) who did not compete for delegates here, 8 percent Robertson and 4 percent Kemp.