DETROIT — Vice President George Bush apparently swept to a surprisingly easy victory in a crucial stage of Michigan's bizarre Republican delegate selection process Thursday night. But his landslide was obscured in the midst of a chaotic, sometimes violent night of closed meetings, rump conventions and widespread charges of election cheating, as a bitter rivalry between Bush supporters and a conservative coalition formed by backers of former television evangelist Pat Robertson and New York congressman Jack Kemp transformed the process into a quagmire.
In fact, Bush campaign officials acknowledged their huge victory margin--Bush had 57% of the delegates--would have been far smaller if Kemp and Robertson supporters had not staged massive walkouts and unofficial rump conventions all across the state Thursday night, thus allowing Bush supporters to control key county and congressional district conventions that could help determine the shape of Michigan's delegation to the Republican National Convention in New Orleans this summer.
Bush campaign officials conceded that the results from Thursday night's local conventions are sure to be contested, since so many became lopsided in Bush's favor after Kemp and Robertson backers stalked out to protest convention rules. Kemp and Robertson supporters, who control the state party's central rules-making committee, are now certain to mount a credentials battle at the state convention to oust the newly elected Bush delegates.
Expects Credentials Fight
"We can't declare victory in Michigan until everything is settled," said Barbara Pardue, spokeswoman for the Bush campaign. She added that the Robertson walkouts "mean that you're seeing some numbers without Robertson people at conventions. So we believe there will be more shenanigans to come from the Robertson people, with a credentials fight over delegates." Pardue said that Robertson and Kemp supporters had walked out of at least 27 county or district conventions where Bush supporters were in the majority, while Bush supporters had walked out of two or three controlled by Robertson.
Still, Bush did much better in the state than most observers had expected. With most of the returns in from Michigan's county and congressional district conventions, Bush held a commanding lead in the race to seat delegates to the Jan. 29-30 state convention, where Michigan's 77 delegates to the GOP convention will ultimately be chosen.
Late Thursday night, Bush held 57% of the delegates to the state convention, while Robertson had 23% and Kemp had 17%, according to the News Election Service, the only independent organization tabulating results. And, out of a total of 1,805 delegates who will attend the state convention, Bush had so far won 910, Robertson 360, and Kemp 273.
But the Kemp-Robertson coalition dismissed the News Election Service results, since the organization refused to count delegates elected by rump conventions staged to benefit Robertson and Kemp. "They are not counting the rumps, so I would have to say the numbers are totally unclear," said Anne Stanley, national political director for the Kemp campaign.
2 Sets of Delegates
"You have some whole congressional districts where two entire sets of delegates were elected by separate conventions," she added. "There are 1,805 delegate slots at the state convention, and we figure about 2,700 delegates were elected at one kind of convention or another tonight. People have been predicting chaos in Michigan for a year, and they turned out to be right."
Robertson aides also dismissed the News Election Service results.
"We just did our count, and we are way ahead of Bush, so the NES numbers are obviously not right," said Ben Waldman, a Robertson spokesman.
Still, the election service's results seemed to signal a sharp defeat for Robertson, who had predicted for months that he would control a majority of the delegates to the state convention, regardless of his ongoing rules fight with Bush. He had also vowed he would hold a plurality of the Michigan delegation to New Orleans.
But Robertson's supposed grass-roots support among fundamentalist Christians and working-class voters new to the Republican Party failed to materialize on the scale his campaign had promised.
Robertson came up far short of his goal. The fact that Kemp--long thought to be a distant third in Michigan--was close to Robertson indicated that the former minister's strength had been overestimated.
"It certainly looks like Bush has had a fine win here, and we may have to begin to wonder whether Robertson is a paper tiger," said I.A. Lewis, director of The Los Angeles Times Poll. "It certainly gives Bush a boost going into the Iowa caucuses."
Robertson's and Kemp's support came mainly from traditionally Democratic areas, principally from the Detroit area and Flint, where GOP organization is relatively weak. Bush's support was widespread, but he did especially well in areas where President Reagan was strongest in 1984.