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MT: A Big Sky Scramble

By David Brown
This year's presidential primary has sent Montana Republicans scrambling for thankless precinct jobs in a way that's making party leaders' heads swim.

In August, there were only 415 precinct-level jobs filled, out of 1,714 around the state. Today, there are 1,133 people in them. They've signed up largely for one reason -- to get the chance to vote tomorrow in the Republican caucuses, open only to party officials.

Montana voters do not register by party. Traditionally, everyone votes in a statewide primary for all offices held in the late spring. Big Sky Country supports the two parties roughly equally. In the 2006 primary, about 97,000 voters requested Republican ballots and 109,000 Democratic ones. In 2004, 95,000 people voted Democratic and 110,000 Republican.

This year, though, Montana Republicans decided to throw their weight around earlier, organizing a caucus system restricted to party officials which led to a run on the hundreds of vacant precinct jobs. People stepped forward, attested to their Republicanism and expressed an interest in serving. Sitting precinct committee members chose from among them, filled positions up to a credentialing deadline of January 26. In all, 1,817 people will be eligible to vote tomorrow night. They will choose 25 delegates, winner take all.

Local observers say candidates did not sponsor people for these grassroots jobs, and that most of the new appointees haven't declared a preference. Some are holding town meetings to solicit the opinion of other Republicans in their precincts.

Mitt Romney has had a full-time state director since the end of September, and Ron Paul has one now, as well. There are volunteer groups for John McCain and Mike Huckabee. Perennial candidate Allan Keyes is also on the caucus ballot, but has no organization.

There have been many endorsements. Secretary of state Brad Johnson is supporting Romney and former Sen. Conrad Burns is backing McCain. Montana Right-to-Life has endorsed Huckabee, and the Montana Shooting Sports Association is behind Paul.

Montana's Democrats are choosing their delegates in the primary on June 3.

By Washington Post editors  |  February 4, 2008; 8:49 PM ET
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