In off election years such as this, political parties choose their chairmen, vice-chairmen and other party officials in what's called an organizing convention.

The Democratic Party's convention is this month, while the Republican's is in June. The same state delegates elected at party caucuses (formerly mass meetings) last year attend the organizing conventions to vote for the new statewide leaders.The terms of the new party leaders continue through the 1993 state organizing conventions.

Traditionally, off election years are a time of collective party soul searching. How did we do in the last election? Did the state party apparatus function well? Were party officials able to recruit good candidates, especially at the county and legislative levels? How have party finances been handled and how much debt does the party have?

As might be expected, with the fine showing of the Democratic Party in the 1990 elections, chairman Peter Billings Jr. is riding high and seeking re-election to the two-year post.

In fact, no other Democrat even filed against Billings for the chairmanship race.

Republicans, on the other hand, are hurting. They lost Utah House and Senate seats in 1990, lost control of the Salt Lake County Commission to Democrats and lost the 3rd Congressional District to Democrat Bill Orton after Republicans Karl Snow and John Harmer self-destructed in a bitter GOP primary.

GOP state chairman Richard Snelgrove isn't seeking re-election. He's defiantly finishing out his term, even though some GOP leaders suggested he resign. Implicit in that request is that Snelgrove be the scapegoat for Republican losses, something he refuses to do.

The state Republican Party is about $40,000 in debt, says Snelgrove, but that's typical following an election year. Fund raising will remove that debt and place money in GOP coffers for the 1992 elections.

Republicans are still the majority party in Utah. They hold majorities in both the Utah House and Senate, Gov. Norm Bangerter is a Republican and the federal delegation is 3-2 Republican.

But they've definitely slipped the past several years. 1992 is seen as key to Republican leaders and they want a good party chairman this election.

With a month left before the filing deadline for GOP state offices, three men are in the race - Davis County GOP chairman Mark Taylor, an attorney; Bob Holmes, a longtime GOP worker and developer; and Bruce R. Hough, a satellite telecommunications consultant.

Others may join the race before it's over.

Party chairmanship races are not media-grabbing events. Candidates run by sending letters to the 2,500-odd state delegates - only about 800 of whom are expected to show up at the state convention - and attending as many county party conventions as they can, drumming up support and giving speeches.

The chairmanship and all other state offices are volunteer - so the person has to have considerable time to donate.

In recent times, party chairmanships have been used as stepping stones to higher political office. Salt Lake County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi was a two-term Democratic state chairman. House Speaker Craig Moody, R-Sandy, is a former state party chairman. And Snelgrove himself was the Salt Lake County GOP chairman before resigning the post and seeking the 2nd Congressional District seat in 1988. After losing that race to Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, Snelgrove ran and won the state chairmanship.

Whomever the Republicans choose in June, one thing is clear. Much work lies ahead. Wounds in the 3rd District still must be mended, similar pitfalls avoided in the future and good candidates found to run in 1992. And, as usual, the right wing of the party - which can really be a thorn in the side of many party regulars - must be accommodated as best as possible.