The Elephant in the Room: Major role for Pa. GOP

Delegates who go to the convention uncommitted could nominate the best candidate based on the situation in September, not the situation in April.

Posted: January 17, 2008

The Republican presidential race will be over by Pennsylvania's April 22 primary. That's what pundits have been saying for some time now, and they may even be right. But, after Mitt Romney's victory in the Michigan primary on Tuesday, it is all but certain that four or even five viable candidates will fight for delegates in the 21 states holding Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5. Bottom line: Pennsylvania could matter big time if Keystone State Republicans play it smart.

Here's how it might happen:

Assuming no one breaks out by running the table in South Carolina and Florida, each of the five candidates could win at least one Super Tuesday state. Mike Huckabee picks up Arkansas and Alabama. Fred Thompson locks up Tennessee. Romney grabs Massachusetts and Utah. Rudy Giuliani rolls to victory in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and John McCain pockets Arizona. Since only 10 of the 21 states have winner-take-all primaries, the actual apportionment of delegates will even be more spread out among the candidates.

Half of all convention delegates will be selected on Super Tuesday, but the scenario above could mean that no single candidate would emerge a winner that day. Not in terms of state wins, or convention delegates, or "Big Mo." With the exception of Romney, who's funding his campaign, the candidates will be broke, but will likely stay in the race and position themselves for a brokered convention.

State bylaws bind most delegates to support a particular candidate for at least the first ballot or so. But not all delegates are legally committed. The party leadership in each state appoints convention delegates, and these delegates - several hundred in all - are uncommitted. Another slug of uncommitted delegates comes from states that don't choose delegates based on how candidates fare in their primary elections. These state primaries are no more than beauty contests. The convention delegates are elected by congressional district without a presidential candidate's name next to theirs. These uncommitted delegates are free to vote for whomever they want, regardless of how many votes any particular presidential candidate won districtwide or statewide.

Here's where it gets interesting.

At a brokered convention, states with large numbers of uncommitted delegates on the first couple ballots have tremendous leverage. That is, unless the uncommitted delegates from these states have made informal commitments to particular candidates.

Which brings me back to Pennsylvania. We happen to be a "beauty contest" state, one that elects uncommitted delegates by congressional district. Right now, presidential campaigns are doing what presidential campaigns have done in elections past: lining up their own delegate slates in each congressional district. The would-be delegates are usually supporters who agree informally to vote for a presidential candidate in exchange for some support in the activist's campaign to be a convention delegate.

But under these circumstances, is it wise for Pennsylvania's party activists to field slates for different candidates, or is there a better strategy for maximizing our state's influence?

After all, Pennsylvania holds 7 percent of the total delegates needed to win the GOP nomination. This could make us a huge player in selecting the next nominee. If the delegates are both formally and informally uncommitted, our delegation will have the benefit of time, perspective and independence that other state delegations just won't have. For example, we may not know in April who the Democratic Party's nominee will be. A lot can also happen on the Republican side and in the world between our primary election and the start of the GOP convention in early September.

Pennsylvania would be in the best place to help nominate the best candidate based on what is happening in September rather than what we thought would happen in April. We could well become the keystone to the Republican nominating process.

Can you imagine the excitement this would inject into a Pennsylvania presidential primary process moribund since our 1976 moderate Republican delegation helped engineer a Ford victory over that "ultra-conservative" guy from California, Ronald Reagan? (OK, I said Pennsylvania Republicans could be in a position to help nominate the best candidate, not that they always will.)

The alternative destines the delegation to irrelevancy. Consider what's likely to happen if our delegates run committed to particular candidates. I predict our delegation would have votes committed to no fewer than five candidates - maybe even six if a delegate committed to a minor candidate draws first on the ballot somewhere. The Keystone State? No, a crumbled keystone.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party will have squandered what may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity. An opportunity to generate real interest in the state's GOP presidential primary. An opportunity to come together as a team and send a slate of top-notch party activists to the St. Paul convention. An opportunity to be in the best possible position to do what is best for our Republican Party, our Pennsylvania, and our country.


E-mail Rick Santorum at rsantorum@phillynews.com.

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