- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

Republicans are going to war with each other over a proposal announced yesterday to change the party's presidential primary rules for 2004 to have the states vote in order of size, with the smallest states going first.

Several Republicans from big states vowed to fight the proposal.

"It's bad for California Republicans," said that state's Republican Party executive director, Jon Fleischman. "We are looking for a plan that encourages Republican candidates to campaign in California, and this plan seems to encourage them to campaign everywhere else but here."

Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, however, defended the proposal as needed to head off worse proposals.

"We are heading inexorably toward a one-day, 50-state national primary unless we do something," he said after releasing the plan at a National Press Club briefing.

The proposal, dubbed the "Delaware Plan," would put states into four groups, based on population, with the smallest holding their primaries first in March and the biggest holding off until June.

No more than 47 percent of the delegates required for nomination would be awarded before the last group of states held its primary. It also would slap stiff penalties on states that attempted to elbow ahead of others.

The proposals seeks to end "front loading" the rush by states in recent presidential election cycles to move up their nomination primaries and caucuses in order to have a say in who the presidential candidate will be.

"The process that gave us a great nominee in George W. Bush may not yet be broken, but it's on a fast track to breaking," Mr. Nicholson said.

The primary season has become so squeezed that 17 states voted as of March 7, when Arizona Sen. John McCain dropped out of the Republican primary and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley dropped out of the Democratic primary.

"That's why two-thirds of the states felt left out of the process why Colorado had only 8 percent voter turnout when it finally had its primary," said Tom Sansonetti of Wyoming, chairman of the RNC's Rules Committee.

"This year, 30 states vote in the space of eight days, and by 2004, it could be 37 voting in the same week," Mr. Sansonetti said.

The work of a Nicholson-appointed commission headed by former RNC Chairman Bill Brock, the plan drew sarcastic condemnation or, in some cases, faint praise from some big states that had their primaries early enough this year to make a difference in choosing the nominee.

Bill Powers, the New York state party leader, yesterday burned up the phone lines, lobbying other big-state Republican Party chairmen against the plan.

"Chairman Powers is against it because it puts us at the back of the pack," said Jeff Buley, the New York Republican Party general counsel.

Illinois Republican Chairman Rich Williamson said he wouldn't vote for it, in part because he favored another plan, but mainly because he didn't know about the proposal until asked yesterday for his views.

"I was surprised they didn't give any advance warning before the release, and if they don't do a better job communicating than they did so far, I'd say it's dead on arrival," Mr. Williamson said.

But not all big states oppose the plan.

Alan Novak, the Pennsylvania state party chairman, said he would support such a plan.

"I've always like the population-based plan," he said. "This keeps the game going, and for parochial reasons, Pennsylvania likes to vote later in the process."

Florida Republican Chairman Al Cardenas also said he liked the Delaware proposal.

"The primary system has been heading toward breakdown for the last three [presidential nomination] cycles," Mr. Cardenas said. "Unless we are going to impose serious penalties, we are [going] to have an even more front-loaded primary in 2004, and we might just as well have one national primary election in that case."

Texas Republican Party Chairman Susan Weddington said she preferred a rotating regional plan wherein states in the West, for example, would go first in one presidential election and rotate to last next time.

"But there is no perfect plan, and the Delaware plan is probably one of the better ones," she said.

Mike Hellon, the Arizona Republican chairman, managed more enthusiasm, saying, "If you're going to stop the drift to a single national nominating primary, this is the way to do it."

States like New York argue that the population-based plan doesn't really solve anything because, in all likelihood, the nominee will emerge by the time the second or third group of states vote, even though technically no candidate will have won the requisite number of delegates for nomination.

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