By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - For Ohioans involved in the Democratic presidential campaign, the big election isn't March 2 - the day of the state's presidential primary - but Monday.
In Cincinnati, Bethel, Middletown and Dayton, Southwest Ohio Democrats will gather to pick the delegates who will go to the Democratic National Convention in Boston this July.
"I figure this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Lynn Worpenberg, 51, a Westwood systems analyst who wants to be elected a delegate for Howard Dean. "I'm the only person in Westwood who has a Dean sign in their front yard."
Unfortunately for Ohio, Monday night's delegate elections will probably be more fiercely contested than the presidential primary itself. Nearly 1,200 Democrats are vying for 91 spots.
Conversely, by the time the March 2 presidential primary comes along, there's likely to be just one Democratic candidate left, and the nomination sewn up, most experts think.
Super Tuesday, the primary election day Ohio shares with nine other states, is no longer super, and the primary is likely to be irrelevant.
"It would be very surprising if it matters, very surprising," said George C. Edwards III, an expert on presidential primary politics at Texas A&M University.
Among the reasons Ohio's presidential primary is likely to be irrelevant: Wisconsin, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Washington, Maine, Tennessee, Nevada, Idaho and Utah.
Those are states that have leapfrogged Ohio to hold their primaries in February. In 2000, these 10 states held their primaries after Ohio or on Super Tuesday with the Buckeye State.
Overall, 19 states and the District of Columbia will hold Democratic primaries or caucuses before Ohioans get a chance to vote.
Dean, the former Vermont governor who has won key endorsements from former Vice President Al Gore and former Democratic presidential contender Bill Bradley, has been considered the front-runner among Democrats seeking the White House. But even he acknowledges chief rival Wesley Clark's momentum heading into the first nomination.
If Dean wins Iowa Jan. 19 and New Hampshire Jan. 27 and then sweeps a series of primaries and caucuses in February, what happens in Ohio won't matter, said John Green, director of University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
Kentucky, because of its late May 18 primary date, is largely obscure when it comes to picking the presidential candidate. Indiana, with its May 4 primary, has the same problem.
While Democrats might ignore Ohio in the run-up to the primary, the state will be one of the keys to the general election in November.
A Gallup Poll released Jan. 6 shows that Ohio voters are almost exactly split between those who say they lean Democratic (44.5 percent) and those who lean Republican (45.4 percent). And no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio.
But Ohio's value as a testing ground is nullified by a presidential primary schedule that is "illogical," said Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.
No matter how early some states schedule their primary, there will always be others trying to go even earlier. Twenty years ago, for example, the Iowa caucuses weren't held until Feb. 20.
If Iowa and New Hampshire don't settle the question of who will be the Democratic nominee, then the answer could come on Feb. 3, known as "Tidal Wave Tuesday" or "Groundhog Tuesday," seven states will hold primaries or caucuses. Even after that, key states like Michigan, Tennessee and Wisconsin hold primaries.
In the event that the race is in turmoil by Super Tuesday, Ohio could still be overshadowed by big-vote states California and New York, which also hold primaries that day.
Not only is Ohio smaller, it gets punished in the delegate count for having fewer Democratic elected officials than those states. The party allots delegates based mostly on population, but then adds bonus delegates for Democratic members of Congress (California has 32, Ohio, six), governors and even a category called "distinguished party leaders."
Republicans use a similar formula, so Ohio fares better at that convention. The Bush campaign and the local party officials have already selected the 179 delegates.
At Monday night's caucuses, Democrats will split up into groups based on whom they support. Those groups will then pick delegates to represent that candidate. To be a Dean delegate in Cincinnati, 17 Democrats are running for four delegate slots plus one alternate.
Whether Worpenberg or other delegate wannabes get to go to Boston depends on how many votes they get Monday, how their candidate does March 2, and whether they can scrounge up the $1,000 to $3,000 it will cost to spend the week at the convention.
Bill Bridges, who hopes to be a Dean delegate and has been leading the former Vermont governor's campaign in Cincinnati, said he gets up every morning ready to do anything to ensure George W. Bush is no longer president in 2005.
"If that means spending $2,000 or $3,000 in Boston, it's a pretty exciting deal," said Bridges, a 54-year-old business analyst from Delhi Township.
Worpenberg, who was alerted to Dean's candidacy by an e-mail in April, acknowledges the March 2 primary might not matter. Will she vote?
"Oh, my goodness, yes," she said. "I went to Dean's Web site. As I read through his stand on the issues I kept going mmm-hmm, that's what I think, too. ... I really think Howard Dean is what this country needs right now."
Fighting for Ohio
Even if there is still an Ohio contest for the Democratic nomination by March 2, it will be fought largely in northeast Ohio and Appalachia - because that's where the Democrats are.
Al Gore's best Ohio counties in 2000 were around Cleveland, Youngstown and Warren. State Democratic Party spokesman Dan Trevas said the Cleveland area has about 42 percent of the state's Democrats; even the smaller Youngstown area has more than Cincinnati, he said.
Four years ago, Ohio's primary mattered. Though it was held at about the same time as this year's contest, there had been far fewer primaries and caucuses beforehand. The results cemented the nominations for Bush and Gore.
This time, neither Dean nor any of the other top Democratic candidates has campaign offices in Ohio.
"We're right now concentrating resources on New Hampshire and the Feb. 3 states," said Adam Kovacevich, spokesman for Sen. Joe Lieberman's campaign.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark's campaign has opened 10 state offices, but none in Ohio, said campaign spokesman Bill Buck.
"As we get closer to the Ohio primary, we will have a heavy presence," he said. "I think it's too early to tell when the nomination will be sewn up."
Green said Ohio voters are the losers in the primary system, since they ultimately get stuck with the Democratic candidate picked by other voters.
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