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RNC Fights Over 2012

By Reid Wilson

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, New Mexico -- As Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan and other top officials urged committee members to focus on electing John McCain in November, Republican chairmen from key states are already looking forward to the 2012 nominating contest, battling over a plan that would advantage smaller states while keeping larger states in rotating pods in the contest's later months.

The party's rules committee, on Wednesday, passed an amended version of what is known as the "Ohio Plan," which would allow smaller states to hold presidential nominating contests before a rotating group of larger states, loosely grouped based on their electoral votes. Those twenty-three smaller states, including Iowa and New Hampshire, would be permitted to hold earlier nominating contests, while twenty-seven larger states would be divided into three groups, organized loosely by electoral votes.

Backers of Ohio's proposal say the new scheme would force candidates to prove that they can run both retail campaigns and a big media-driven operation. Ohio GOP chair Bob Bennett, who spear-headed the plan, said the system as it is now rewards "the candidate who can raise the most money the earliest." "The concept is, do you believe in retail politics or don't you," he said. Allowing smaller states to go first will limit the impact of money, at least somewhat, giving a smaller state's candidate the chance to compete with the big fish. "You ought to be able to elect a candidate from Maine, or Kansas, or Wyoming," Bennett said.

The pre-approved window in which each of the pods would hold their contests will also shift backwards, opening in March, not February, and avoiding the necessity of a Holiday season campaign frenzy.

New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen, whose state would likely retain its first-in-the-nation primary under the plan, questioned why anyone thought the nominating process was broken to begin with. But the Ohio system, he said, will retain the current system's best aspects while strengthening weaknesses. "We're pleased," he said.

But the plan drew immediate rebukes from officials from larger states, who promised to substitute a different option or scuttle the proposal on the convention floor in St. Paul this September, if not before.

"The Ohio plan relegates states like California permanently to the bottom half of the batting order," Golden State GOP chair Ron Nehring said. "I'm not going back to my state and tell Californians that they're permanently second tier."

"We've got to go back to the drawing board," Texas Republican Party chair Tina Benkiser said. "It's got to be a fair process. This is about the voters having a choice."

The Ohio plan is "an unacceptable concept," Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis said. With Nehring, Anuzis is organizing states in hopes of defeating the measure before it heads to a convention for avote. Anuzis said he had commitments from fourteen states, including several larger bodies that will bring big delegations to the Minnesota convention. "There's a growing consensus that we have to have another plan emerge," he said. "I'm hearing a lot of talking going on," Benkiser said. "I would hope that there would be other plans discussed."

Anuzis and Nehring each said they favor a plan offered by the Benkiser's Texas delegation, which features rotating groups that include every state, or a plan endorsed by the National Association of Secretaries of State, which is similarly flexible. Bennett says those plans aren't acceptable, either. "What the big states want to do is substitute themselves for Iowa and New Hampshire," he said. "This is about a lot of people -- consultants and political operatives from big states -- wanting to be relevant in the future."

To Benkiser, virtually anything is better than the Ohio option. "We can do just fine under the rules as they are," she said. Cullen, too, pointed to the fact that Republicans have a nominee-in-waiting while Democrats continue to squabble over super delegates and later contests.

One wrinkle about the alternate plans that is sure to raise everyone's hackles concerns Iowa and New Hampshire, which have traditionally led off the nominating contests. The N.A.S.S. plan includes a waiver that would allow Iowa and New Hampshire to continue to hold their contests first, while the Texas plan does not.

Neither plan would allow South Carolina, historically the first Southern state to hold a primary, to continue in their unique position, while the Ohio plan would. Several chairs from the smaller states, including South Carolina's, said they think the Ohio plan is acceptable and should be taken seriously. "It's a responsible plan," Palmetto GOP chairman Katon Dawson told Politics Nation.

"We think ... that these smaller states have a say," Dawson said, adding that McCain spent just a few million dollars in his state and still came away with a win. That's "tough to do in Texas and California and these other states," he said. Should any plan strip his state of its traditional role, Dawson said his state will "fight 100%," though he does not anticipate a battle on the convention floor this summer.

The action that the RNC Rules Committee took this week in Albuquerque serves as a recommendation to the full RNC, which meets before the St. Paul convention. After amendment, discussion and approval, the resulting amalgamation heads to the Republican National Convention's Rules Committee. Membership in the two rules committees will vary, but many who voted today will likely serve again in September. Once that second body votes on a plan, it will be sent to the convention floor for ratification.

While Democrats can alter their rules at any DNC meeting, Republican rules are set every four years at the national convention.

The process for setting up the next Republican nominating process is only beginning. In the next several months, states large and small will hammer out deals they need to secure their votes at the convention. But while Bennett's Ohio plan passed muster outside Albuquerque this week, it appears, for now, that a compromise may just be leaving the system as is. Bennett, who is more cautious about predicting victory than his rivals, takes the long view. "It's a nine-inning baseball game," he said, "and we're in the second inning."

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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