Utah Republicans staged a grown-up version of Red Rover on Saturday, successfully paving the way for delegates previously committed to Mitt Romney to come over to presumptive candidate John McCain's side of the playing field.
The switch was made possible by a Republican Central Committee proposal, approved by committee members Saturday, that clarified what committee leaders described as an "ambiguity" in language that previously bound national delegates to the top vote getter in the state's primary election. Romney's decision to pull out of the campaign two days after Utah's participation in the Feb. 5 primary juggernaut left the 36 state Republican delegates committed to a candidate suddenly out of the race but without a contingency plan.
Utah GOP Chairman Stan Lockhart said the earliest-ever Utah primary date and subsequent candidate drop-out exposed language in a party bylaw that required clarification.
"For the first time, we've gone from a late to an early process," Lockhart said. "It highlights that the person we like in February is not always the person we like in August."
In a Feb. 29 letter to Lockhart, Romney officially released his Utah delegates and encouraged them to cast their votes for McCain. That, however, was not enough to instigate the process, according to the Utah Republican constitution. The words "the candidate" were redefined in a new standing rule to mean a person who was the highest primary vote getter and is a candidate for nomination on the first ballot at the national convention, versus the previous interpretation of "the candidate" only as the person who had garnered the most votes in the primary election. Under the new rule, McCain's 5 percent of the Utah vote, and presumptively his name on the ballot, binds Utah delegates to him at the convention.
Committee members voted 70-12 to adopt the new interpretation, and opponents of the rule had mixed feelings about the change.
Larry Meyers is a St. George lawyer who will represent Utah at the GOP National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. He spoke in opposition of the rule before committee members voted.
"Everybody knew what the bylaw meant," Meyers told the committee. "It was only a couple of weeks ago that we came up with this tortured interpretation. I think it is a proposal to support an agenda ... if this standing rule passes, I'm going to have trouble following it."
After the rule passed, Meyers recanted, acknowledging the super majority voting in favor of adoption, and said he would abide by the mandate and cast his vote accordingly, presumably for McCain.
Republican super-delegate, national committeewoman and Bluffdale city councilwoman Nancy Lord was opposed to the new rule from its inception and remained dissatisfied following the vote.
"I think it's dishonest and disingenuous," Lord said. "They can sit there and pontificate about how this is the appropriate way to handle it, but I'm not buying it."
Lord said she believes she is beholden to the voters she represents and that the vast majority of those voters, 90 percent, cast votes for Romney.
"They can say we're bound to McCain," Lord said. "But I choose to honor the vote of the people and the will of the state. I had my mandate when people voted so overwhelmingly for Romney."
Lord said she needed some time to get over what happened at Saturday's meeting and would "have to think about" what she will do at the national convention.
James Evans, chairman of the party's constitution and bylaws committee, said the procedure used to obtain the clarifying language, in this case a standing rule, is clearly outlined in the constitution and was followed implicitly.
"Our constitution says that if something is not spelled out in our constitution or by-laws, we go to Robert's (Rules of Order,)" Evans said. "The governing body established that there was an ambiguity, and we followed, to the letter, what we are required to do to attain a clarification per our constitution."Two scenarios could make the Utah GOP's embroglio a moot point. One is if four other states, in addition to Utah, were to commit the majority of their delegates to Romney, resulting in his name being placed on the ballot, or two, if McCain invites Romney onto the ticket as vice president.