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High stakes also carry high risk for Mo. Republican primary

Sunday, February 3, 2008 | 6:34 p.m. CST; updated 11:53 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Voter interest appears high for Missouri’s presidential primaries. The number of delegates at stake is high, too. But until this weekend, the candidates’ interest in Missouri, particularly Republicans, seemed comparatively low.

Part of the reason may be the high-risk, high-reward nature of Missouri’s Republican primary.

The Missouri GOP will use a statewide winner-take-all approach in Tuesday’s election. That means only one candidate — likely either John McCain, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee — will receive all 58 of Missouri’s delegates to the Republican National Convention, even if he edges his rivals by only a single vote.

The Missouri Democratic Party, by contrast, awards its delegates according to a complex formula that rewards candidates not only for finishing first but also for finishing a close second, and places a higher value on votes from some parts of the state than others. The result is that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are likely to split Missouri’s 72 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

While the Democratic candidates are virtually guaranteed a partial victory, the Republicans face either victory or defeat.

Missouri’s Republican delegate total is the fourth largest prize among Super Tuesday states. Its election results are amplified because many other states divide their Republican delegates proportionately or by congressional districts. So in states such as California and Georgia, which have more total delegates than Missouri, the winner of the statewide vote may have to split delegates with rivals who fare better in particular congressional districts.

Given Missouri’s high reward, some Show-Me State Republicans had expected to see a lot of the Republican presidential candidates, both in person and on television. In fact, the presumed enticement to candidates is one of several reasons why the Missouri Republican State Committee chose to stick with its statewide winner-take-all approach.

But it hasn’t exactly been a candidate magnet.

Following the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the official start of the presidential nomination process, no Republican candidate came to Missouri until this past week.

Huckabee made two Missouri campaign stops Jan. 29 and returned for another on Friday. McCain also came to Missouri on Friday. Romney finally was to appear Sunday during the Super Bowl. Only Huckabee had begun airing TV ads as the weekend began.

“Right here, right now, it barely seems there’s a campaign going on,” said political scientist Peverill Squire, a professor for 22 years at the University of Iowa until he joined the faculty at MU two weeks ago.

There are several reason for that.

With so many states holding primaries at once, candidates don’t have either the time or money to make a big push in every state.

Also, with a compressed primary schedule, Republicans focused heavily on Florida’s 57 delegates in its Jan. 29 primary before turning their attention elsewhere. Democrats turned to other states sooner because their party barred them from campaigning in Florida as a punishment for Florida’s decision to move up its primary.

Obama, for example, began airing TV ads in Missouri on Jan. 19, the same day Clinton was campaigning in suburban St. Louis. Clinton launched her own TV ads Jan. 23. By this weekend, both candidates had been to Missouri twice since the Iowa caucuses. That’s not a lot, but still more personal and TV face time than most of the Republicans.

Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, a Romney supporter, offered perhaps the best explanation for the relatively low concentration of Republican candidates on Missouri.

Although a statewide winner-takes-all primary can be very appealing, “it also means that time and resources spent in Missouri are done so with great risk,” Blunt said. “There’s no second-place prize.”

Squire concurred in that assessment.

In Missouri, “a candidate has to calculate whether he has a real chance to win or not,” he said, “and if you don’t think you can really win, even if you throw resources into the race, then it’s probably better to use your money and time elsewhere.”

Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Jared Craighead said the GOP hasn’t had much discussion of changing the party’s method for its primary.

But state Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti said he had inquired of national party officials whether Missouri Democrats could adopt a winner-take-all approach. The inquiry was roundly rejected, he said, because the Democratic Party requires a proportional allocation.

“I figured a winner-take-all would spur more activity,” Cardetti said.

But doesn’t seem to be the case.


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