Western States Consider Power Primary

To get respect, Utah, Nevada, others may create new stop on road to White House.

One by one, the politicians take the podium and emit a cry from the heart: America's Mountain West is sorely misunderstood.

Whether the issue is mining or cattle-ranching or national parks, the inside-the-Beltway crowd two time zones away in Washington, doesn't understand Western issues, said the assembled congressmen, senators, and governors at a recent meeting of the Western States Republican Leadership Conference.

Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) of Utah is proposing a solution - or at least one avenue into helping the West gain more prominence in the nation's politics: a Western Super Tuesday.

The idea is to coordinate early presidential primaries for about eight Western states - notably excluding California - and hold those primaries early, say, right after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. The proposal isn't new - it's been around since the early 1980s - but it's gaining momentum.

Two states, Utah and Nevada, have passed laws appointing members to a Rocky Mountain Presidential Primary Task Force that will meet next summer. The Western Governors Association and the Council of State Governors-West have formed a joint committee to consider the issue.

And Governor Leavitt, a respected Western leader with a moderate demeanor, happily discusses the idea any opportunity. "I was in New Hampshire in 1995, and it was something to behold," he told his fellow Republicans. "[The candidates] not only knew the people, they knew their interests. They knew what was on the city council's agenda."

The aim of a Western primary is not to outdo New Hampshire, or, heaven forbid, run a regional primary before New Hampshire's, a political sacred cow. Rather, the idea is to put together a collection of primaries that could award a candidate a large block of delegates, and possibly give a decisive edge in the race for nomination.

As of now, says Leavitt, "we are not relevant in the process of choosing the president of the United States."

A regional primary would boost Western clout in a number of ways, says Jim Souby, executive director of the bipartisan Western Governors Association.

First, he says, it would enhance understanding of Western issues. When candidates come to campaign in a state, they need to know local concerns. Staffs call with questions such as, "Why is everybody so riled up about water in the West?" says Mr. Souby.

Any members of Congress thinking of running for president (that is, most of them, it seems) strongly consider the needs of early primary states in their votes on legislation, he says. "There's no politician in his right mind who would say no to New Hampshire," says Souby.

Second, an early Western primary may strengthen the chances of Western-based candidates in a presidential run. Leavitt points out that a president from the West would bring more Westerners into the administration and White House than a non-Westerner would, enhancing its importance.

The two national parties are not passing judgment on the Leavitt plan. The Republican National Committee, in fact, passed an incentive plan at the 1996 convention to grant states that hold their primaries late extra delegates. But if you're a state with a small delegate count - such as Utah, with 28 - then a 10 percent bonus for holding a late primary doesn't amount to much.

Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado and chairman of the Democratic National Committee seems ambivalent toward the idea. "The voice of the West is important, but so is the voice of Colorado," says Jim Carpenter, the governor's press secretary. Colorado had a relatively early primary in 1996, and garnered some media attention for it, he says, implying the state may prefer to preserve attention just to itself.

But the way presidential primary politics are heading, virtually no state may get much in the way of special attention. Most states, it seems, want the clout of an early primary; Delaware is already planning, once again, to hold its Republican primary the weekend after New Hampshire.

The nation is moving toward an increasingly condensed primary season, almost a national primary. At this point, says Denver Democratic analyst Floyd Ciruli, the nominees will be decided within 30 days, beginning with the first winnowing-out events in January to the "killer events" where huge masses of delegates are decided.

After all, why should Iowa and New Hampshire have such disproportionate clout?

"The one thing that recommends our approach, as confusing as it is, is that you get a lot of different tests that allow a lot of different individuals to emerge in races - or submerge - winnowing people out, bringing forth new concepts," says Mr. Ciruli.

It's also grueling, he notes, but that's not necessarily bad. "The problem with a national primary," he says, "is that it becomes largely a money-dominated, media-controlled event."

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