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GOP leaders mull moving up presidential primary in Idaho

By Dan Popkey

The Idaho Statesman

Published: Monday, July 4 2011 8:33 p.m. MDT

BOISE — Idaho could become more than a piggy bank for GOP candidates if the Republican Central Committee adopts a proposal to elect delegates at a Super Tuesday caucus, likely on March 6, replacing the primary election in late May.

"For years and years, the Republican presidential nominee has essentially been picked before our primary," said Ron Nate, a BYU-Idaho economics professor who chairs an Idaho Republican Central Committee subcommittee that approved the proposal last week. "The motivation here is to make Idaho more relevant in national politics."

Former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa tried for years to get Idaho in a regional primary with an earlier date, but it never happened. Democrats have used a caucus to pick delegates since 1980. In 2008, Barack Obama filled Taco Bell Arena, part of a caucus state strategy that keyed his win over Hillary Clinton.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa says Idaho's primary "has been a non-event," excepting 1976, when native son Frank Church and Ronald Reagan were on the ballot. "The election in late May has proven to be meaningless," Ysursa said.

Instead, Idaho is an ATM for GOP candidates who spend their time with writers of fat checks.

Another example came earlier this month, when Mitt Romney stopped in Boise. Rather than meet-and-greet in a coffee shop as he does in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, he held a high-dollar fundraiser in the Stueckle Sky Center. It cost $2,500 to get a photo with the front-runner, $1,000 for breakfast.

Romney was so disinterested in the ordinary voter that he declined to let the Statesman photograph his visit.

Idaho was Romney's 20th best fundraising state in 2008, contributing $653,000. But he's not alone in using Idaho as a cash machine. Time is almost as precious as money in a presidential campaign, and Idaho's late primary makes retail politics a bad use of a scarce resource.

Look for the 220-member Central Committee to make Idaho a more attractive place to campaign when they take up the proposal July 16 in Moscow.

"I'll say it bluntly," said Region 4 GOP Chairman Rod Beck of Boise, a member of the caucus subcommittee. "Idaho has used its delegates to the national convention to curry favor rather than nominate a presidential candidate because it's been too late to make any difference."

Beck, meanwhile, has another idea that's more controversial . Fresh off his legal victory that forced the Legislature to adopt a closed primary for 2012, Beck proposes another step: require party leaders to vet candidates for the GOP primary.

Beck's plan would apply to all partisan jobs, from county clerk to the Legislature to statewide and congressional office. The state Central Committee, county committees and legislative committees would choose no more than two names for the primary ballot.

Similar to the Utah plan that left three-term GOP Sen. Bob Bennett off the ballot last year, the idea would strengthen the clout of party regulars, including about 900 precinct committee members.

"Bob Bennett didn't make the ballot because he'd lost touch with the party," Beck said.

The Ada County GOP Central Committee discussed the idea Tuesday and Ada County Chairman Dwight Johnson likes the concept. "You still have a primary so people can vote, but candidates have to come through the party," he said. "Right now, anybody can call themselves a Republican and run in a Republican primary."

The idea strikes fear in incumbents like Gov. Butch Otter and the all-GOP congressional delegation. All five were either unreachable or had no comment Monday.

"It could have a big impact, no doubt about it," Johnson said. "Incumbents were elected under a different process, so they may have concerns."

Ysursa argued a point that could persuade the party to wait: Partisan voter registration starts Friday under the new law, and the first closed primary is next May.

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