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Elected, party leaders stalemate on Washington primary date

Sat., March 24, 2007, midnight

OLYMPIA – The good news: At a meeting of top elected officials and party leaders Friday morning, all sides agreed that Washington’s scheduled May 27, 2008, presidential primary election is so late that it’s virtually irrelevant.

The bad news: The panel couldn’t agree on an earlier date.

“I think we’ve hit our stalemate here,” sighed Secretary of State Sam Reed, who’s been calling for a switch to Feb. 5. That’s when nearly two dozen other states make their decisions.

The group agreed to try to reach agreement again in a month or two.

One idea floated Friday is to time Washington’s primary so that it’s on the same date as Oregon’s and Idaho’s – both of which are considering shifting their late-May primary dates. That unified front, Sen. Pam Roach suggested, would give the Northwest extra clout in attracting candidates here.

“We want to get the presidential candidates out here,” said Roach, R-Auburn. “They would have to address our issues. They would have to connect with our voters.”

When Washington temporarily shifted its presidential primary to Feb. 29 seven years ago, Al Gore swung through the state four times, John McCain did three times, and George W. Bush visited both sides of the state, Reed said. “It shows that it can work,” he said.

To broaden the racial and ethnic diversity of voters who make early decisions on the field of presidential contenders, the two major parties have added Nevada and South Carolina to Iowa and New Hampshire, the two traditional starting states for the race. That has spurred many other states to shift their caucuses or primaries to early February.

Under Washington law, the state’s presidential primary is set for the fourth Tuesday in May. But a nine-member committee can move it to another date if six members agree. In 1996, the state moved its primary to March 26. In 2000, the primary was held Feb. 29.

On Friday, the panel’s five Republicans, including Reed, party chairman Luke Esser and Rep. David Buri, R-Colfax, backed a Feb. 5 or maybe Feb. 12 date.

The four Democrats – including Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia – held out for March 18.

Why March 18? Because no other state has a primary on that day, Democratic party leaders said, and because it would make Washington a key player in deciding the top candidate from a field of contenders already pared down by the Feb. 5 vote.

“If we’ve got one punch, we want to use it in the right place,” said state Democratic Party vice chair Eileen Macoll.

“We’re trying to find a more meaningful role,” said party executive board member Todd Nichols.

How meaningful the vote is, however, also depends on how much importance – if any – the parties allow it. Democrats have always ignored the primary in Washington, instead picking delegates through party caucuses.

“It has been our belief that a primary is a beauty contest dominated by paid advertising, while the caucuses emphasize grassroots organizing and face-to-face communication,” state Democratic Party chairman Dwight Pelz wrote in a recent message on the group’s Web site. Neither party has yet made a formal decision, however, on what weight – if any – to give the 2008 primary.

Republicans have given the election a diminishing weight in their allocation of delegates: 100 percent of the delegates were allocated on the basis of the primary election in 1992, half in 1996 and one-third in 2000.

In 2004, state lawmakers simply canceled the election when Democrats said they wouldn’t use it to award delegates and Republicans said all delegates would likely go to incumbent George W. Bush.

Rep. Buri said he was stunned by Democrats’ insistence that the primary be on March 18, after more than 40 other states have made their decision.

“I just didn’t understand the politics behind it,” he said. “I’m not going to put it late enough so that the parties can choose in their caucuses and make it irrelevant. They want the party faithful to choose who we get to vote for. That’s obvious.”

Democrats said Washington would be lost in the multi-state hubbub of a Feb. 5 election, when candidates are likely to focus on big states such as California, Texas and New York.

“The rush to the front of the calendar feels more like government by bread and circuses, and we’re looking for a more thoughtful process,” Macoll said.


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