Utah, West Feel Left out of Presidential Primaries

Utah is fed up with presidential candidates who get no closer than 30,000 feet as they fly over the state.

The state isn't necessarily blaming the candidates, but rather a primary calendar that puts it months behind Iowa, New Hampshire and states that typically settle the Democratic and Republican nominations long before the Utah even writes its ballot.

Determined to change the status quo, Utah wants to hold a 2008 presidential primary the first week in February, which would put it on par with about a half dozen states that trail Iowa and New Hampshire, but still are in the thick of the contest.

Gov. Jon Huntsman, who earlier this month signed legislation to finance an earlier date, hopes it touches off a Western wave, with seven states joining Utah to create a super primary that stretches from Montana to the Mexican border.

"They can choose to compete here or they can choose to avoid or neglect us all together," Huntsman said. "If we are positioned early enough, it does have consequences in terms of the message sent to the region and indeed the rest of the country."

Voters in the fast-growing Mountain West have been feeling irrelevant, wondering why their issues — energy resources, water rights and federal ownership of land — are getting short shrift.

Although Arizona and New Mexico favor a Western primary, Huntsman's ability to rally support may be hampered by a multimillion-dollar price tag in some states, legislative schedules and likely changes in the Democrats' presidential calendar.

For the 2000 election, former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt tried to a form a Western primary but it proved too costly.

This time, Colorado is balking at an early primary's $5 million price tag, as is Montana and Idaho, where the cost is several million less. "Frankly, there are other priorities for that $1.2 million," Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysura said.

In Nevada, Gov. Kenny Guinn and Secretary of State Dean Heller favor a Western primary, but the legislature isn't in session this year and Guinn and Heller will be out of office in 2007 because of the state's term limits.

Utah's situation is unique; the legislature had a budget surplus of more than $1 billion this year due to increased tax revenues from record population growth.

Without the early date, Utah would be a tough sell for presidential candidates. It offered 29 Democratic delegates out of the party's 4,322, or less than 1 percent, in the 2004 presidential scramble. On the Republican side, Utah had 36 of the party's 2,509 delegates, or 1.4 percent.

The numbers change slightly with each election, depending on factor such as state population and elected officials.

Political analysts say if Utah were positioned at the beginning of primary season, the number of delegates wouldn't be as important as its status.

"If Utah goes on February 5th, all these candidates have to come to Utah early in the schedule," said Mike Stratton, a Democratic strategist who also serves on the party's presidential nomination commission.

Separate from Utah's effort, the Democratic Party is weighing a change in its calendar that would put two caucuses between Iowa and New Hampshire, preferably one from the South and the other from the West.

Nevada and Arizona are leading candidates to lock up an early date in the West, said Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who serves on a party committee that deals with the schedule. Las Vegas and Phoenix also are among 11 cities vying to host the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Competition for one of those early primary spots will be fierce because the Democratic primary contest would be over by the time it got to Utah and other states in February, Fowler said.

"You'd just be sucking wind," he said.

But a Western primary could still be significant, said Christopher Hull, an expert in presidential primaries at Georgetown University.

"You're still playing a major role in making a decision about who runs for president. In 2008, in particular, it will be valuable to be in that position on both the Republican and Democratic side," Hull said.

Utah has long been a GOP stronghold — President Bush won 71.5 percent of the vote here in 2004 and its five electoral votes.