- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2000

Democrats and independents will be able to vote in the three of the next four major Republican primaries, giving them a surprisingly prominent role in choosing the Republican Party's presidential nominee.

The strange primary setup in South Carolina, Michigan and California also gives Sen. John McCain who won the New Hampshire primary because of strong independent support an unusual advantage in the campaign's early days, party officials say.

"It's stacked here in Michigan for a candidate like McCain, the way it is in South Carolina and was in New Hampshire," says Sharon A. Wise, a Republican National Committee member from Michigan and a vigorous supporter of Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Said Neil Thigpen, former state election commissioner and Republican activist: "Potentially, independents and Democrats will play a huge role in South Carolina, maybe a third of the vote in the Republican primary, and McCain has a huge percentage of them."

Still, that would not be enough if core Republicans support Mr. Bush, he said.

"If every Republican in the county came out to vote, McCain would lose," said Mr. Thigpen, a South Carolina Republican activist who is chairman of the McCain campaign in Florence County.

Most party officials, including some McCain supporters, say the odds are still with Mr. Bush.

The Texas governor was considered the almost inevitable standard-bearer until Mr. McCain attracted enough independents and new voters to win the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary by a 19-point margin.

That would not have happened, pollsters and party officials say, if independents had not been permitted to vote in the New Hampshire Republican contest.

But the next three major contests look as if they are stacked in Mr. McCain's favor because the primary systems were set before national party leaders had any evidence that Mr. McCain's anti-establishment candidacy would actually become a potential threat to Mr. Bush.

The effect of allowing non-Republicans to vote has been unpredictable. It was under those rules that Pat Buchanan, also distrusted by his party's establishment, was able to win an upset victory over Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, only to suffer what proved to be a fatal defeat by Mr. Dole in the South Carolina primary that year.

This year, South Carolina holds the next major primary on Feb. 19, and Democrats and independents will be able to vote.

South Carolina, conservative and Republican, is considered the Bush campaign's "fire wall" against a repeat of the New Hampshire upset. Michigan, which holds its primary Feb. 22, is another fire wall. But if Mr. McCain wins South Carolina handily, Republican Gov. John Engler's statewide organization, which had been expected to make Michigan safe for Mr. Bush, may have trouble.

Democrats and independents also will be able to vote in the California primary March 7. Between now and then, the Arizona Republican has a good chance of winning his own state's Feb. 22 primary the only major Republican contest in the coming weeks in which only Republicans can vote.

Mr. Thigpen thinks the odds are still with Mr. Bush but adds, "If McCain wins in South Carolina, Michigan, Arizona, he could take California and if that happens, he could be the nominee."

Republicans managed to let independents and Democrats become so potentially important in choosing a Republican nominee in part because the Republican National Committee allowed a mad rush by state parties to hold their contests early enough to influence the nomination. Also, in several of the early states, state law does not provide for voter registration by party. The Democratic National Committee held out against "compacting" primaries but the Republican National Committee did not.

The South Carolina Republicans moved their primary from the first Saturday in March to Feb. 26. Not to be outdone, the Michigan and Arizona Republican parties moved up their contests. So South Carolina moved its date up again, this time to Feb. 19, a Saturday.

The South Carolina Democratic Party tried to do the same thing, but got blocked by a national committee rule permitting only the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic parties to hold presidential nomination contests before March 7.

"We let Democrats and independents vote in our primary because we have to," said J. Sam Daniels, the South Carolina party executive director. "There is no party registration in the state."

The open primary system in South Carolina now a threat to establishment Republican candidates and a potential boon to a maverick distrusted by many conservatives was originally considered a tool for conservatives to capture swing voters.

"We use this open primary to turn Democrats and independents into Republicans," said Mr. Daniels. "We've all heard of Reagan Democrats. They voted for Reagan in our Republican primary in 1980. Now they call themselves Republicans in this state.

"Ten years from now, we will be talking about the Bush or McCain or Forbes Democrats, and how they became Republicans in 2000," Mr. Daniels said.

California's peculiar primary system, demanded by that state's voters, is the most complicated of all. Democrats and independents can vote in the Republican primary, but only Republican votes will be counted in determining which GOP candidate wins all the state's delegates to the nominating convention this summer.

"The California open primary benefits McCain, because more independents and Democrats will go for him than for Bush and Forbes, if he's still in the race, again will take more from Bush than McCain," Mr. Minnaugh said.

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