Sen. John McCain’s campaign is mounting a stealth effort to change Republican presidential nomination rules in California to allow independents to vote in the Feb. 5 primary, party and campaign officials in the state have told The Washington Times.
The impact could be huge — and potentially damaging to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, currently the most acceptable to traditional-values voters among the three top-tier Republican presidential candidates.
“If California changes its delegate selection rules to allow independent voters to participate in the Republican primary, it would be very helpful for McCain and for Rudy Giuliani, who historically have done very well among independent voters,” Federal Election Commissioner Michael E. Toner said.
An official with the Romney organization in California said McCain supporter Duff Sundheim, the former state Republican Party chairman and an ally of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been trying to line up votes for the rules change.
Several other state officials and campaign operatives independently reported receiving phone calls from Mr. Sundheim seeking support for the change.
Mr. Sundheim late last night denied that he is affiliated with or backing Mr. McCain but refused to answer when asked whether he was lining up support for a rules change. He did admit he was having discussions with state party Chairman Ron Nehring.
Officials from all three campaigns declined to discuss whether their candidates are working to change the rules.
“This is a state issue, and we will abide by whatever is decided,” McCain spokesman Danny Diaz said. “Reading anything more into it is simply inaccurate.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Giuliani’s campaign agreed that it is a state issue.
“This ultimately is an issue for Californians to decide, and we will play by whatever rules the people of California decide upon,” Maria Comella said.
A senior party official in California said a top McCain backer in the state told supporters the change would benefit the Arizona senator, who won the 2000 New Hampshire primary by drawing huge numbers of independents.
But other senior Republican officials maintain it also would help Mr. Giuliani, whose more liberal policy views most closely match the California independent voter profile.
California Republicans will select about 175 delegates on Feb. 5. Current rules do not allow voters who decline to state their party affiliation to participate in the selection of the presidential nominee.
California is a “winner-take-all” state when it comes to the Republican presidential nomination. This means the state awards three delegates for each of its congressional districts — plus a bonus for the overall winner.
Therefore, a candidate could campaign heavily in districts with only a few hundred Republicans and win three delegates, the same number as another candidate who spends millions of dollars in a district with thousands of Republicans, noted Tim Morgan, Republican National Committee (RNC) treasurer and California RNC member.
If the rules change, Mr. McCain or Mr. Giuliani could go after even an independent-poor district and still win all three delegates from that district.
“Because of California’s size and number of delegates to the national convention, this change could play the most significant role in determining who wins enough votes on Feb. 5 to be the Republican presidential nominee for 2008,” said Jon Fleishman, Republican Party vice chairman for Southern California.
However, Mr. Fleishman thinks only voters who “bother to register as Republicans should have the right to select their party’s presidential nominee.”
In Washington, Mr. Morgan told The Times he thinks the changes now being pushed in his state could be accomplished simply enough, by a vote at the state party convention in September.
The RNC would not penalize California for the late change by reducing the number of eligible delegates, Mr. Morgan said, adding that the subject is under further legal review at national party headquarters.
A former top-ranking California Republican official now working for Mr. Romney said the McCain campaign is trying to change the rules because “it benefits McCain more than Giuliani because McCain is in the best position to go after independents. His whole campaign [is] built on that. Something that brings independents helps McCain more than Giuliani.”
Mr. McCain has an impressive list of endorsements, according to a senior campaign official. Mr. Schwarzenegger is expected to announce his endorsement, as is Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — representing three of the four most populous, delegate-rich states — along with Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who is revered by many conservatives.