Missouri muffs chance for presidential primary

Missouri is spending an estimated $7 million for what amounts to one of the largest public opinion polls of the Republican presidential race. Too bad few people seem to care.

Although it’s holding a presidential primary Tuesday, the votes cast by Missourians won’t count for awarding delegates to the Republican National Convention. Newt Gingrich won’t be on the ballot, even though several Republicans who already quit the race will be listed. And because of all that, frontrunner Mitt Romney isn’t even campaigning in Missouri.

Despite its status as a historic swing state, Missouri has managed to muff its chance in the national spotlight.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Danette Proctor, 61, chairwoman of the Republican central committee in southwest Missouri’s Greene County. Missouri “should be very prominent in the presidential race, we’re a bellwether state.”

Missouri has correctly picked the winner of nearly every presidential election for a century — barely missing in 2008 when a slim majority gave the state to Republican John McCain instead of Democrat Barack Obama. Tuesday’s primary will still be used to award delegates for the Democratic nomination, which will undoubtedly go to Obama.

But because a series of political squabbles rendered Tuesday’s Republican vote merely symbolic, the state has been largely ignored.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is the only candidate to have come to Missouri. He rallied crowds this past week in Republican-leaning suburbs and small towns. On Friday, he made a special appeal to Missouri’s many social conservatives at a church event with James Dobson, founder of the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family. A political action committee backing Santorum also has begun airing ads in Missouri.

Because Gingrich is absent from the ballot, Missouri’s primary gives Santorum his most direct matchup against Romney. If he wins, Santorum can cast himself as the conservative alternative to Romney heading into the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3. If Santorum loses Missouri, Gingrich may gain momentum.

“I think it’s a Waterloo for Santorum,” said Republican political consultant Jeff Roe, of Kansas City, who had worked on the failed presidential campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“Santorum’s argument for being an alternative to Romney is that he can beat him head-to-head. The only place he can have his theory tested and tried is right here,” Roe said. “If he isn’t successful, I think there will be major forces leaning on him to get out of the race.”

Santorum said he hopes Missouri’s nonbinding primary can provide momentum for the state’s March 17 Republican caucuses — the first of a multi-step process by which Missouri will allot its 52 presidential delegates. But if a candidate emerges as the overwhelmingly frontrunner from Super Tuesday, even Missouri’s caucus may be largely meaningless.

How Missouri arrived at this point is a tale unto itself.

After states scrambled to move near the front of the presidential contest in 2008, the national Republican party warned that states jumping to the front in 2012 would lose half their delegates. Missouri tried to comply. The Republican-led Legislature last year passed a bill that would have repealed a 2002 law requiring the presidential primary to be held Feb.7 and instead scheduled it for March 6. But Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, citing objections to unrelated sections.

Believe it or not, things got even stranger.

Nixon added the presidential primary to the agenda for an autumn special session, and the state Republican Party urged lawmakers to reschedule the February vote for later. But Republican senators squabbled among themselves. Some insisted Missouri should stand fast and thumb its nose at the national party directive. Ultimately, nothing passed.

Not wanting to get penalized by the national party, the Missouri Republican Central Committee decided to hold spring caucuses to allot its presidential delegates. Yet because the law mandating a February primary remained on the books, both had to occur.

The glorified opinion poll will come at no small cost: the bill to put on the primary is expected to reach about $7 million.

This comes in a year in which the governor and lawmakers are turning over every rock and cushion — including deep cuts to higher education— to find money to help balance the budget. Had Missouri merely wanted to hold a statewide public opinion poll, it could have commissioned one for about $30,000.

Gingrich never paid the $1,000 filing fee for Missouri’s primary, explaining later that it didn’t count for delegates. But Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Jon Huntsman all did, and — even though they have quit the race — will remain on the ballot alongside Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul.

Missouri election officials expect fewer than one-fourth of the registered voters to participate in the primary.

“It’s pretty much a waste of money,” said Daryl Bowles, 53, a tea party activist from rural Boonville who plans to begrudgingly vote in the Republican primary. He added: “We end up wasting our time on something that is somewhat meaningless.”

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