The state conventions for both the Republican and Democratic parties in Utah are Saturday.

I've been attending these events since the early 1980s, watched the close races, the blowouts and the internal political maneuvering.

Utah has an odd political system, part caucus/conventions, part open and closed primary elections.

Most other states don't combine the two processes. They either have a closed convention system whereby delegates pick the party nominees, or they have a general primary where all candidates go on the ballot for citizens to pick from.

Because of the combined systems here, in Utah many candidates move to the left (for Democrats) or to the right (for Republicans) to make it through the convention, then move to the middle to get through the primary and general elections.

Such dancing is not good for either the parties or the candidates.

Republican leaders have for some time complained that Democrats, through some kind of informal consensus-seeking, avoid primaries — which can often be contentious in both parties.

By avoiding a primary, the minority party candidates can save money for the general election and keep bad intra-party feelings to a minimum.

Republicans, on the other hand, have had some classic and bitter primary battles over the years.

When the ultimate GOP nominee loses in the final election, party insiders pound their fists on the table and demand some changes to the primary or convention process to avoid such losses in the future. And then little is done about it.

Maybe the singular example of this came in 1990.

Then-U.S. Rep. Howard Nielson, a Republican and the first person to hold the 3rd District seat, was retiring. The district was so overwhelmingly Republican that it was believed that whoever ended up as the GOP nominee would be a shoo-in. The Democratic candidate was an unknown fellow named Bill Orton, underfunded and considered a sacrificial lamb.

Two Republicans came out of the GOP convention: John Harmer and Karl Snow. Harmer was a noted conservative, a former California lieutenant governor. Snow was a respected, but more moderate, state senator.

The primary race in those days lasted from the May or June convention to September. And all summer long, Harmer and Snow battled each other. The race got crazy. And at one point, both sides ended up with private investigators looking into the other's past and politics.

The race was so ugly that even the heavily GOP electorate got disgusted.

And Orton actually won the final election. He held the seat until 1996, when now-Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, beat him.

Saturday, Cannon will face two qualified Republican challengers, John Jacob and former 2nd District U.S. Rep. Merrill Cook.

If Cannon is forced into a primary (one has to get 60 percent of the convention delegate vote to win the nomination outright), will there be a repeat of the 1990 mess?

Unlikely.

The Legislature — dominated by Republicans — some time ago changed the primary election date from September to the third Tuesday in June. With the conventions forced into the first week of May, the primary season now is only six weeks long.

That's less time to attack each other. And the shorter time limits spending by primary candidates — thus saving more money for the ultimate nominee to spend in the general election against the candidate from the opposing party.

But the current system is not perfect. Republicans closed their primary, and now you must be either a registered Republican or an unaffiliated (independent) voter to pick up a GOP primary ballot. If you show up on June 27 and are not a registered Republican, or an independent willing to register as a Republican, you will be denied a GOP ballot, says Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.

And because the 2006 Legislature adopted early voting — you can vote two weeks before Election Day now — if you are registered in a party other than the GOP and you want to vote in the Republican primary, you must reregister as a Republican by May 27, 30 days before the primary election.

As the universe of who picks GOP nominees dwindles, so do citizens' participation and interest in Utah politics. And less participation is never a good thing.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com.