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Thomas D. Elias column: GOP plan undermines primary

If there was one compelling reason to move the 2008 California primary election up from June to next Feb. 5, it was to give ordinary citizens of the nation's largest state a chance at last to have some voice in choosing the major party candidates for president.

For too many years, the consensus now holds, the tail has been wagging the dog, with states like New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina – sporting populations a small fraction of California's – forming the key battlegrounds in both parties.

Not since 1972 has California had much to do with picking a nominee in either party.

But now comes a prominent California Republican with a plan to make his party's primary considerably less democratic than it now figures to be. Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine wants only some delegates chosen by voters, with the rest decided on by a state party convention.

That would subvert a longtime Republican plan to move their party's system closer to the Democrats' proportional representation plan, where candidates win delegates according to how many votes they get, with a few exceptions.

As it now stands, next year is supposed to be the first year Republicans deviate from their previous winner-take-all policy, in which the leading vote-getter in a three-way race could get all California's national convention delegates by winning as little as 35 percent of the popular vote.

Instead, party officials decided back in 1999 that they would go to a winner-take-all by congressional district system, but not until 2008. Their rules will divide up the state's 165 delegates by congressional district, with the winner in each district taking its nominating convention votes.

Political strategy

The reason for this change was to increase voter turnout, get candidates to campaign all over the state and not just on TV or in the big cities where they raise money.

Now comes DeVore with a plan to reserve one delegate choice from each of the 53 districts for naming by the party convention. DeVore, of course, well knows that the majority of state party attendees are extreme conservatives. He also knows that going into the election season, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are believed by most Republicans to have a significant advantage over more conservative candidates like Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or San Diego area Congressman Duncan Hunter. McCain, from a neighbor state, has often campaigned in California for candidates and ballot issues and is a better-known figure here than the others. Giuliani also has campaigned often for California Republicans.

One way to derail their campaigns would be to take a lot of the delegate selection out of the hands of voters who know and presumably like both of them, giving it instead to party activists who tend not to like McCain's stances on control of campaign finances and gun control or the fact that Giuliani is on his third marriage.

"The activists on the state central committee have still not forgiven McCain for the McCain-Feingold assault on the First Amendment (an attempt to stem unlimited campaign fund-raising and spending) nor do they appear comfortable with his incoherent philosophical agenda," DeVore told a reporter. "Sen. McCain seems to be more a product of the New York Times than of the party of Ronald Reagan."

DeVore tried to get legislators to keep the state primary in June and let the party's state convention choose its 53 national delegates at its regular February session. California would still have had an early voice, he argued, without the estimated $50 million to $90 million cost of a shifted primary.

That's true – but the voice would belong only to a select few, not to the bulk of voters. How small-d democratic is that?

Fortunately, it appears the DeVore plan most likely will not be adopted. For one thing, setting the primary on Feb. 5 puts the popular vote before any of next year's state party conventions.

Win-win-win situation

That should be fine for everyone. It should put California in the forefront of presidential decision-making and force national candidates to pay attention to this state's needs. Propositions to change term limits and redistricting appearing on the same ballot would not be forced on voters, either – voters would as always have the opportunity to vote these changes up or down. And lawmakers who are about to be termed out would get the chance to convince voters to allow them to stay around awhile longer.

That's a win-win-win situation, and a whole lot more democratic than any scheme essentially designed to hurt the candidacy of one or two popular politicians.

Reach Thomas D. Elias, a long-time California political reporter: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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