BOUNTIFUL — It took a couple of tries, but Utah Republicans finally decided Saturday to keep alive a proposal aimed at helping the party fight an initiative petition drive to replace the state's unique system for nominating candidates.
Members of the party's state Central Committee at first rejected a proposal from Utah GOP Chairman James Evans intended to show the party is serious about increasing participation in the caucus and convention system.
But they changed their minds after Evans and others, including Utah Republican National Committeeman Bruce Hough, warned that taking no action to improve the system would only help the Count My Vote initiative.
The initiative launched Wednesday by a bipartisan group led by former Gov. Mike Leavitt would establish a direct primary election in Utah. Now, candidates with enough support from party delegates can avoid a run-off election.
Evans' proposal would tie the threshold of delegate votes a candidate must receive to avoid a primary to the turnout at the party caucuses where delegates are elected.
The Republican Party leaders who make up the Central Committee had already rejected a request from Count My Vote earlier this year to raise that threshold in exchange for not going forward with the initiative.
Saturday, at their quarterly meeting held at Bountiful City Hall, they were initially in no mood to take up the issue again even though Evans said many party members were calling for changes to keeping caucus turnout high.
After the proposal was voted down, Evans told the committee members they were tying his hands in the battle to defeat the Count My Vote initiative by refusing to make changes in the system.
"I'm just at a loss," Evans said of trying to reconcile that unwillingness with what he described as the damage the initiative would do to the party by taking away its power to control the nomination process.
"We're saying what we do now is fine," the GOP chairman said. "But we're up against public perception." He told committee members he would not give them "happy talk. I'm not going to come in here and say things are great."
Later in the meeting, Hough was even more direct, telling the more than 120 in the audience they were doing what backers of the initiative wanted by not taking action that could be seen as improving the current system.
"I just feel as if we have played directly into their hands," Hough said, calling for any action that would involve more people in the caucus and convention system. "We put our chairman in the boxing ring with one hand tied behind his back."
At that point, members voted to reconsider the earlier action and sent the proposal to a party constitution and bylaws committee for another look. A final vote will likely come at the next state Central Committee meeting in December.
Evans said the move demonstrates the party supports accountability. "What we're debating is the most effective way of doing that," he said.
Also Saturday, state GOP Vice Chairman Willie Billings laid out another strategy to take on the Count My Vote initiative, which will require some 102,000 signatures from 26 of the state's 29 Senate districts to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.
"The way we win this thing is rural Utah," said Billings, the former Washington County Republican Party chairman. He said the party has the infrastructure to stall signature-gathering in rural areas of the state.
Count My Vote has already reported raising more than $500,000. But Billings said the party has the people needed to spread the word about what he warned would be a negative impact on rural voters under a direct primary system.
Not mentioned Saturday was Evans' proposed alternative initiative petition to protect the current system. Evans said after the meeting the GOP initiative was "very much so" still in the works, but was not discussed for strategy reasons.
Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who announced Monday he was stepping down, advised the Republicans to stay close to both the business community and current officeholders.
Bell, a real estate developer who said he was leaving government to make more money, said the party needed to be careful about becoming disconnected from the business community.
"No one should drive this party. But we also don't stand alone," he said. "We need money, financing, for both the party and for candidates. So we can ill-afford to say, 'You don't belong.' "
Bell said election years are the time to talk about political differences with current officeholders. "They're our guys. So we need to support them," he said. "Let's lock arms and move forward."
Both Bell and Gov. Gary Herbert fueled speculation about who will be named the state's new lieutenant governor by praising Herbert's chief of staff, Derek Miller, already seen as on a shortlist of candidates for the No. 2 spot.