The first-ever Western regional presidential primary is virtually assured for the year 2000. All that remains is to pick a date, which Western representatives will do in late November. It will probably be between March 6 and March 10.

The move is a bold one and a good one. For far too long Utah and other Western states - with the exception of electoral college giant California - have had little to say about who will represent the Republican and Democratic parties in presidential elections.Strength truly does lie in unity. By having a number of Western states band together early in the primary season, presidential hopefuls will be forced to take the West more seriously. They need to. Utah and the West are high growth areas and deserve considerably more attention than they've received in the past.

One notable effect of the primary will be the requirement of Utah voters to declare allegiance to a political party. Utah is an open party state, meaning Democrats can vote in Republican primaries and Republicans can vote in Democratic primaries.

Making the presidential primary "closed" - only Republicans could vote for the Republican candidates and only Democrats could vote for the Democratic candidates - is fine. But Utahns should resist any attempts to carry that principle over to non-presidential primaries.

Party affiliations mean different things on national and local levels. Someone who decides to vote as a Republican in a presidential race may be more comfortable voting as a Democrat on the local level, or visa versa. Also, Utah elections often are dominated by the Republican Party. In some instances this year, the Republican primary was the only place voters-at-large could cast meaningful ballots. Some nominees never had to face a Democratic opponent in the general election.

Voters should be encouraged to participate in state and local elections - arguably the most important elections as far as an impact on neighborhoods and tax rates are concerned. An open primary system would provide that kind of encouragement.

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt deserves credit for aggressively pushing the Western regional primary concept. He predicts four to nine states (they likely would include Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and Montana) will be involved in the first one, with perhaps more joining in 2004 and 2008 as the move to regional primaries builds across the nation.

Whatever the total of states participating, it will be much better than what Utah and the West have now.