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Robertson Invasion Fails to Materialize : Bush Seeks to Avoid Michigan Setback

September 21, 1987|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Posted on the broad veranda of this resort's century-old Grand Hotel, agents of Vice President George Bush's presidential campaign scanned the horizon for an enemy armada.

They feared that their archrival in this state, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, would be ferrying supporters across Lake Huron from the Michigan mainland to pack a GOP leadership conference here over the weekend and once again deal Bush's presidential hopes an embarrassing setback.

The invasion never materialized because Robertson's chief strategist, Marc Nuttle, concluded that this conclave would be devoted mainly to courting supporters rather than taking action. "We save the boatloads for when there are votes," Nuttle said.

Nevertheless, the anxiety in the Bush campaign reflects one of the most striking paradoxes of the early 1988 GOP presidential campaign. The competition for delegates in Michigan, designed in part to give Bush an early boost toward the nomination, threatens to turn instead into a debacle for him just 10 days before the critical Iowa precinct caucuses next Feb. 8. Already, the Michigan campaign has raised some troublesome questions about the intensity of support for his front-running candidacy.

Criticized and Derided

As things stand now, it is Robertson rather than Bush who seems likely to emerge as the chief beneficiary of the Michigan process, which has been much criticized and derided for its early start--delegate selection began way back in the summer of 1986--and its tangled rules.

Another Republican who stands to benefit at Bush's expense is New York Rep. Jack Kemp, the only other active contender for the state's delegates. Kemp finished a weak third in the August, 1986, primary in which the 9,000 precinct delegates who will start the process of picking Michigan's 77 national convention delegates were selected. But by taking advantage of the Michigan rules and allying himself with Robertson against Bush, Kemp could well come in second behind Robertson and consign Bush to a dismal third-place finish.

At a press conference here before addressing the conference, Kemp acknowledged that the rules for the Michigan competition seemed "Rube Goldbergish," but he noted the rules were not his idea and added: "Being an old quarterback I just never, ever complain about playing in somebody else's ballpark."

Sounding Like a Winner

Robertson, meanwhile, also here for the conference, sounded much the way a winner is expected to sound, talking of the need to unite the party after his expected triumph.

The television evangelist called at a press conference for "a coalescing of various groups to go fight the enemy" once the issue is settled in the intraparty contest. "My thrust in everything I can possibly do in the Republican Party nationally and in the Republican Party in Michigan is to bring about coalitions, to expand the party, to make it a party of inclusion, not exclusion, and to go fight the Democrats in the fall," he said.

With their backs against the wall, Bush's strategists here still predict victory when the national convention delegates are chosen in January. "We will win Michigan," said John Long, who is directing Bush's efforts here.

Overturning a Rule

But Long acknowledged that Bush's chances depend heavily on getting the courts to overturn a rule approved last week by the party state committee, which now is dominated by an alliance of Robertson and Kemp backers. The rule would deprive Bush of a key bloc of supporters his strategists have been depending on at the January convention.

The skirmishing so far has exposed some surprising flaws in Bush's front-running bandwagon. Lee Atwater, national overseer of the Bush campaign and other top Bush strategists have always claimed that organization--mastery of the vital nuts and bolts of political operations--is one of their greatest strengths.

Yet here in Michigan, in a series of tests going back to last spring, the Bush forces have been consistently out-organized and outmaneuvered by Robertson's backers. It was those experiences that caused the Bush forces to warn that Robertson might ship a boatload of backers to this island, just as he had dispatched busloads to previous battlefields in Michigan and Iowa.

'Element of Surprise'

"By telling people about it at least we can take away the element of surprise," Mary Matalin, Bush's Midwest coordinator, explained to a reporter.

What makes Bush's organizational difficulties all the more striking is that he has outspent his rivals significantly in the state. The Bush forces acknowledge spending about $700,000 in Michigan, but David Walters, who runs the Robertson campaign in the state, claims the figure, counting money spent early on by Bush's political action committee, is closer to $3 million, contrasted with $300,000 for Robertson.

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