Can Bay State GOP convention provide spark to ignite party?

NEXT September's Massachusetts Republican primary may be only slightly more exciting than watching grass grow. A lot depends on whether party leaders can make the coming state GOP convention more than a rumble of forgettable oratory.

Bay State Republican leaders are counting on a record turnout of party faithful at the April 11-12 gathering in Worcester. Some 2,624 delegates may be taking part -- nearly double the number that attended the party's convention in Boston four years ago.

Although GOP strategists could have gone further in opening the decision-making process to a broader party spectrum, they did take a potentially significant step in that direction.

For the first time in state party history at least 20 percent of the delegates were chosen at the party's grass-roots level by local caucuses of registered Republicans. Usually only Republican officeholders and the handpicked representatives of party ward and town committees will attend the convention.

This should ensure new faces and perhaps fresh ideas and enthusiasm for the GOP and its cause, in a state where party ranks have thinned substantially in recent years. It remains to be seen, however, to what degree the base of Massachusetts Republican activists is broadened and what effect that may have on redirecting the party's course.

While some in the party's power structure might be delighted if there were no contests for statewide offices in the September primary, that could lead to a low Republican-voter turnout. Meanwhile, the lion's share of political attention would almost surely be focused on several Democratic contests.

Once having made the effort to get more workers involved in shaping party policy, it makes little sense to offer them a convention devoid of the excitement that the competition for various endorsements would almost surely generate.

Under party rules adopted last fall, only candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, and auditor who receive at least 10 percent of GOP convention support can compete for nomination in the Republican primary.

That restriction, which is similar to the 15 percent requirement employed by state Democrats, makes it impossible for a would-be contender for statewide office to bypass the convention and go directly to the primary.

In 1982, for example, candidate for governor John W. Sears of Boston sat out the GOP convention, which he felt was controlled by delegates committed to the candidacy of investment counselor John R. Lakian of Westwood. The latter won endorsement by a landslide, but Mr. Sears won the primary.

Even if Sears had gone to the convention and lost the endorsement, he would surely have won the now-required 10 percent backing to qualify for the primary. This rule means that anyone wishing to run for any of the six so-called state constitutional offices must begin campaigning months ahead of time if there is to be competition for the delegate endorsement.

Whatever prospects there might have been for a lively intraparty contest for the GOP gubernatorial nomination this year were weakened by former Gov. Edward J. King's prolonged indecision about comeback. The former Democratic state chief exeuctive, who switched to the GOP last spring, had been considered a likely and formidable contender.

In recent weeks Gregory Hyatt of Methuen and Guy Carbone of Watertown have declared their candidacies for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Mr. Hyatt, a political conservative and former executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, was the 1984 GOP nominee for Congress in the state's Fifth District. Mr. Carbone, a former Democrat, headed the Metropolitan District Commission in the late 1970s. Neither of these hopefuls has held elective office or is well known, even among fellow-Republicans.

At least two other Democratic dropouts, former US Attorney Edward F. Harrington and former state revenue commissioner L. Joyce Hampers, are among others seeking Republican convention endorsements. Mr. Harrington is expected to be unopposed for the party nomination for attorney general and Mrs. Hampers is similarly without opposition within party ranks for state treasurer.

The liveliest convention contest could be for the state auditor endorsement, between Republican state chairman Andrew S. Natsios, a state representative from Holliston, and perhaps House GOP floor leader William G. Robinson of Melrose.

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