- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

West Virginia Republicans have agreed on some changes to their presidential-primary process in a move they hope will put the state “in play” in 2008.

A group of elected Republican activists will choose the nominee at a convention Feb. 5, 2008, far earlier than the state’s typical May primary.

The 1,400 delegates to the state convention will be chosen by West Virginia Republicans in January that year, with the majority of the voting expected to take place on the Internet.

“I would think it would elevate our status because it’s so early,” Rob Capehart, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party. “It’s building enthusiasm within the party.”

Candidates will have to start generating grass-roots support early to court West Virginia’s Republican activists and leaders, and select their slate of 18 delegates by the fall 2007 filing deadline, he said.

The first two months in a presidential-election year typically are dominated by New Hampshire’s primary and Iowa’s caucuses, and a front-runner often emerges when just a fraction of the nation’s states have held elections.

This phenomenon prompted West Virginia’s Republican State Committee to unanimously approve the Internet voting and convention process in January.

“Talk about changing the rules,” said Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College. “This is an innovative attempt by West Virginia to gain its previous important role in presidential selection.”

West Virginia figured prominently in 1960, when John F. Kennedy prevailed in the primary election and later credited the state with his presidential win.

Republican operative Chris LaCivita said changing Virginia’s primary process made a big difference in 2000.

That year, Republicans opted to switch from a June convention to a February primary, turning Virginia into a “major battleground” between then-candidates George Bush and John McCain.

“It completely changed the dynamics, and it ended up helping Bush tremendously,” said Mr. LaCivita, a campaign strategist for Virginia Sen. George Allen.

Still, it’s too early to tell if this will change the 2008 presidential landscape, he said.

Some learning of the changes to the Republican nominating process worried it would disenfranchise the majority of voters and leave the decision in the hands of a few on the far right.

Mr. Capehart argued that any Republican can vote for delegates in the January contest, and those without computers can make their selections at a county convention.

He also countered critics of the online-voting element, noting he checked with Internet security experts and is confident things will run smoothly and without corruption.

The 1,400 delegates chosen by Internet ballot will join Republican legislators and local party leaders at the convention for a roll-call vote. A candidate must have more than 50 percent to win the nomination.

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