Western states hope there's political strength in numbers

Officials from eight states meet today to talk about an early March 'Big Sky Primary,' aimed at raising West's clout in presidential elections.

History has it that protection in the wide open spaces of the old West meant circling the wagons - pulling together to form a united front.

In a modern version of this tactic, a group of Western states - still big on space but relatively sparse on voting population - is making plans to hold a Western primary election designed to attract presidential candidates early in the campaign season.

It's not the knock-out scenery or great skiing that's designed to bring the Al Gores and George W. Bushes to - let's be frank - backwaters like Laramie, Wyo.; Boise, Idaho; or Missoula, Mont., in the dead of winter. Something far more crass is at stake.

"Politicians run uphill toward money and they run uphill toward delegates," says Philip Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, a think tank in Denver.

The banding together of eight or 10 states to hold their presidential primaries on the same day in early March would make the region even more delegate-rich than California. And, according to a study by Mr. Burgess's organization, at a campaign-advertising cost far less per delegate than in the Golden State.

Not just a fly-by

For governors across the region, the point is to avoid the frustration of being the place that candidates (and their media tag-alongs) merely fly over on the way to and from California.

"The purpose ... is not to replace Iowa or out-New Hampshire New Hampshire, but to make the West a strategic building block in the presidential nomination process," says Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R), who's hosting representatives from eight Western states in Salt Lake City today and tomorrow to discuss the issue.

Another point, say advocates, is to get national politicians to pay closer heed to things many Westerners care about - such as nuclear-waste disposal, water rights, Uncle Sam's control of so much of the landscape (most of the land in Western states is federal property), and the need to upgrade national parks.

"If we can get a Western states primary, then chances are the person who gets elected president is going to have to pay attention to Western issues for the first time," says New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R).

Initially, the plan is to hold the "Big Sky Primary" just after the big primaries in California and New York (and nine other states) scheduled for the first Tuesday in March, but before Super Tuesday, the largely Southern election later that month.

Meeting this week in Salt Lake City are representatives from Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana. Both Dakotas have expressed interest as well.

All this is a part of two trends: moving the selection of delegates earlier in the election year, and clustering them by region. In 1996, five New England states (all except perennially first New Hampshire) staged a presidential primary in early March. Two weeks later, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin held a Great Lakes Primary. By the end of March, 70 percent of the convention delegates had been chosen.

As the Nov. 3 elections showed, the interior West today is almost totally Republican country. The GOP holds all the governors' offices and controls nearly all the state legislative bodies.

By contrast, Democrats in Pacific Coast states triumphed in most major races, and state capitals from Juneau, Alaska, to Sacramento, Calif., house nothing but Democratic governors.

But the way things work in the West is not necessarily partisan.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) has worked with Governor Leavitt to develop a unique approach to solving environmental problems. And the nonpartisan Western Governors' Association has created the Western Governors University, a degree-granting "virtual" institution that uses the Internet and other technologies to offer more than 300 college-level courses from 30 universities.

Boon for both parties

A Big Sky Primary is likely to benefit Democrats just as much as Republicans, says Burgess.

Still, a GOP presidential candidate - say, Governor Bush of Texas - could benefit from exposure here before the November presidential election. And a Democrat, especially one seen as pro-environment - say, Vice President Gore - could find himself a hard sell in the land of ranchers, loggers, and miners.

Says Utah's Leavitt, "The West is a region on the rise, and history shows that the political voice of a rising region eventually is heard." With nine of the nation's fastest-growing states located in the West, that's a political fact.

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