Deseret Morning News graphic

Just three states may end up participating in a 2008 regional presidential primary proposed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., but he believes that's still enough to attract national candidates to Utah.

Earlier this summer, Huntsman joined New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in calling for Western states to hold presidential primary elections on the same day to give the region more influence in what's already a hotly contested race for both Democrats and Republicans.

Their intent is to set a date early enough in February that the nominations of both national parties will still be up for grabs, after the nation's first primary in New Hampshire and before so-called Super Tuesday, when a number of states hold elections.

Huntsman and Richardson suggested then that at least six Western states were interested in participating — Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming in addition to Utah and New Mexico.

But now Huntsman says the total number of states involved could be only three, four at the most.

"If we could get four states — even three — it's certainly worth doing. If we get four, that's a nice, round number and would be representative of this region," the governor told the Deseret Morning News.

He said he's counting on Arizona to join Utah and New Mexico. As for the fourth state? "It could be Nevada. It could be Idaho. It could be Montana," Huntsman said. He's crossed Colorado and Wyoming off the list, however.

Still, he's optimistic. "If we're successful by the end of the year in cobbling something together, then we can begin to market this region to the parties and the candidates" as early as next year, Huntsman said.

This isn't the first time a Utah governor has tried to organize a Western states primary.

Former Gov. Mike Leavitt pushed for the first one, in 2000. But only Utah, Colorado and Wyoming Republicans participated, and the election ended up being held after Super Tuesday had decided the national party candidates.

Utah lawmakers refused to fund a primary in 2004, because President Bush did not face an opponent. The state's Democrats organized and funded their own statewide presidential preference primary.

The difficulty in selling states on the regional primary is both the price tag — Utah spent about $700,000 on the 2000 election — and the potential penalty from the national parties for holding the election early.

The political parties attempt to control the primary process by requiring states to hold elections between mid-February and early June. States that don't comply lose a chunk of delegates to the national party conventions.

"I am very concerned about that," Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said. He said it's important that Utah's minority party send as many delegates as possible to the national convention to network with their counterparts from other states.

So far, Holland said, his party hasn't decided whether to support the proposed primary. But he said the idea is interesting. "I think it would be a great opportunity for Utahns to get an idea what our national issues are," he said.

Both Holland and GOP state chairman Joe Cannon said they believed the primary would be an economic boost to the state. "It's a very cheap price to pay for the kind of publicity you'd get," Cannon said.

And for the attention. "When you're a bunch of red (Republican-leaning) states in the West, there's not a reason to have significant attention paid to you," Cannon said. An early, multiple-state primary is "a reason for candidates to come out."

Whether that benefits both major political parties in Utah remains to be seen. Democrats say appearances by their party's national candidates could energize their party. Republicans suggest Democrats here could be hurt because national candidates tend to be more liberal.

That also may be hurting the chances of signing some states up for the primary: About half the region's governors are Democrats. However, at least one of them, New Mexico's Richardson, is himself a possible presidential candidate.

Richardson's deputy chief of staff, Billy Sparks, said the regional primary would still be a success even with only three states. "Every state makes their own decisions," he said. "The goal is to have as many states that want to participate."

In 2004, Sparks said, New Mexico's Democratic caucus in early February created several hundred jobs. And he said the state, seen as going either Democratic or Republican in the national presidential election, attracted 50 candidate visits compared to just 10 in 2000.

"Gov. Huntsman is very enthusiastic," Sparks said. "Having a bipartisan approach will assist in pushing the idea. . . . The idea truly puts the West in the center of national dialogue where it should be."