Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Big States Taking Cuts in Lineup


MON, 9-03-07


SANTA FE – Gov. Bill Richardson tried so hard to organize Western states for an early presidential primary. It's a shame that not only was he unsuccessful, now the big guys are taking cuts at the head of the line and spoiling his alternate plan for breaking from the pack of second-tier candidates.

Richardson entered the 2008 primaries with a plan to do well in the four small states that had been designated to get the selection process started. Those four states were picked because they represented different regions of the nation and because they were small and affordable for less well-financed candidates. It was a great plan. But then the roof fell in.

Richardson began his efforts for an early Western primary soon after his election as governor in 2002. But somehow, he never could create the necessary esprit de corps among Western governors to convince them to work together.

He wasn't the first to try. Back in the late 1990s, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who also harbored presidential ambitions, made the same effort – and was equally unsuccessful.

Leavitt visited then-New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson in a well-publicized effort to recruit his support for an early New Mexico primary. Johnson was completely unmoved by his fellow Republican, as were other governors.

An early Western presidential primary in 2000 wouldn't have helped Utah's Leavitt anyway. George W. Bush about had the nomination sewed up before it started. Bush's only real opposition turned out to be Sen. John McCain of Arizona – another Western state.

Leavitt wasn't left completely out in the cold, however. President Bush tabbed him to become head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite spot for Westerners. That was followed by a cabinet secretary appointment to the Health and Human Services Department.

When Richardson couldn't get any Western state takers for an early 2004 presidential primary, he strong-armed New Mexico Democrats into an early caucus, which didn't require any change in the state's election law.

The change did bring Democrat presidential candidates to New Mexico, although not in the numbers they went to traditional early primary states. New Mexico did host the first Democratic presidential debate, with Gov. Richardson moderating.

For the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Westerners took a different tack. The Democratic National Committee gave Nevada and South Carolina permission to hold early primaries in order to give representation to regions of the country not represented by Iowa and New Hampshire.

Nevada never had been a leader in advocating an early Western primary, but Senate majority leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, wielded power on the DNC and Richardson didn't object to Nevada, where he figured he could do well.

And he is doing well – in Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire. But now, the big guys have decided they want to play too. Suddenly everyone can see the advantage of early presidential primaries.  Both parties may find themselves with presidential candidates nine months before the November elections.

Imagine how much mischief a campaign can get into with that much time for negative advertising and dirty tricks. It isn't to either party's benefit, so it may lead to some presidential primary election reform on which both parties can agree.

There are suggestions for various methods of rotating dates, rotating regions or even for holding one nationwide primary and being done with it. That eliminates an advantage for any state, but it also eliminates the chances of any candidates with a strategy of starting slowly and building momentum.

Meanwhile Richardson and other candidates who don't have big funding are in trouble. Richardson has been able to raise more money than other second tier candidates. His plan calls for him to do much better than those candidates in the small early states allowing him to break from the pack.

His only good news recently is that the major candidates may have ceded him the Indian vote by not appearing at the recent "Prez on the Rez" debate. It won't bring a lot of votes, but it might bring some nice donations.


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