Still too soon to determine who’s ahead in Colorado’s race for prez

GOP presidential candidates in battle for Colorado delegates
The Colorado Statesman

More than six weeks after Colorado Republicans handed a surprise upset victory to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in a caucus-night straw poll, it’s still too soon to tell which GOP presidential candidate has won the state.

That’s because the party won’t designate delegates to the Republican National Convention until mid-April, following a multi-level delegate selection process that has been under way for nearly a month in counties across the state. Delegates, who aren’t bound by February’s preference poll results, are instead deciding among themselves which presidential candidate to support and could deliver an entirely different result than the one rendered by rank-and-file voters.

Alicia and Daniel Raines occupy themselves alongside the Ares Strategic Consulting table at the Adams County Republican Party assembly on March 17 at the county fairgrounds.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Santorum overturned expectations in the straw poll at the Feb. 6 Republican caucuses, amassing 40 percent of the vote, beating presumptive favorite former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 35 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trailed with 13 percent and Texas Congressman Ron Paul got 12 percent. Four years ago, just two days before he dropped out of the race, Romney overwhelmingly won Colorado’s straw poll with 60 percent support.

Once state Republicans finish county assemblies this weekend, attention turns to the state assembly set for April 14 at DU’s Ritchie Center and seven separate congressional district assemblies, most of which will be held the day before at the Colorado Convention Center. It’s at those meetings where Republicans elect delegates to the RNC, sending three delegates from each CD assembly and a dozen more elected statewide. In addition, the state party chairman and the Republican National committeeman and committeewoman are automatic RNC delegates.

Legislative candidate Brian Vande Krol, right, visits with Teller Committee members Lowell and Alice Nelson during the Adams County GOP assembly on March 17. In the 2010 election Vande Krol lost a bid to unseat state Rep. John Soper, D-Westminster, but is back for another try against state Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, under new district boundaries approved late last year.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Hours before Romney won a crucial primary victory in Illinois, the Santorum campaign argued that delegate counts showing Romney with a commanding lead aren’t accurate, and that the breed of Republicans controlling the selection were instead tilting toward Santorum. Rather than sitting on roughly twice as many delegates as Santorum, contended Santorum campaign officials, Romney holds a considerably narrower lead than party officials and news organizations have estimated.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, the Santorum campaign’s delegate strategist John Yob said Romney was “vastly underperforming” and argued that the front-runner’s support was “collapsing” as dedicated conservatives picked delegates for higher assemblies.

Pointing to results from caucus states Iowa, Missouri and Washington, Yob said the campaign was measuring “a significant jump for Santorum and a significant drop for Mitt Romney” as counties and other districts pick delegates bound for state conventions.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, introduces his daughter, Mari, to Adams County Republican Troy Whitmore at the county GOP assembly on March 17. It was the first major public event she had attended.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Those results, Yob said, undermine estimates of delegate strength that rely too heavily on caucus-night straw polls, which make for splashy headlines but could have little to do with the ultimate count.

“Romney would lose delegates as he competes in contests that are made up of more conservative folks,” Yob summarized.

But that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening in Colorado, although county-level results are scarce. According to delegate totals released so far, Romney and Paul are sweeping up the bulk of committed delegates to the state and congressional district conventions, leaving Santorum and Gingrich far behind. Uncommitted delegates, however, are running ahead of all the candidates, setting up what could be a fierce contest for RNC votes in Denver next month.

Adams County Treasurer Brigitte Grimm talks politics with Mike Sheeley, a Republican candidate for House District 30 in Adams County at the county assembly on March 17.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Asked whether the same pattern was developing in Colorado, which had conducted roughly two thirds of its county assemblies by midweek, Yob sounded an optimistic note but declined to provide specific numbers.

“From what we see, we’re doing very, very well in the initial results as it relates to the districts where delegates will be elected,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “It’s too early to tell how the actual state convention will play out, but I guess we’ll know in a month or so, but in terms of the initial district results, we feel it’s playing out very well.”

The Santorum campaign didn’t respond to a request for delegate counts showing performance in the Colorado counties that have already held their conventions.

Adams County Treasurer Brigitte Grimm catches up with Republican House District 35 chair Patty Sue Femrite at the Adams County GOP assembly on March 17 at the county fairgrounds.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Republican county assemblies — coinciding with county conventions, a legal distinction that differentiates between nominating state and local candidates and the presidential nominee — finish this weekend, but the state party doesn’t plan to round up and release delegate preferences until sometime in the first week of April.
Meanwhile, according to delegate counts released by a handful of counties, it’s Romney who is winning the most delegates who have declared a preference so far.

In conservative Douglas County — where Romney won the February straw poll — out of 239 delegates bound for the state convention, Romney won 44 and Santorum won just eight, with the others going unpledged to any candidate. Similarly, of the 159 delegates Douglas County is sending to the 4th Congressional District convention, Romney has 20 and Santorum has five, and the rest are uncommitted. Out of 79 delegates to the 6th Congressional District convention, Romney has the support of 19 and the remaining 60 are uncommitted.

Including alternates in the count, Douglas County is also sending a handful of Paul and Gingrich supporters to the state and congressional district conventions, but the proportions between Romney, Santorum and uncommitted are roughly the same.

Congressional candidate Joe Coors and Cheri Stevenson visit with Adams County Republicans at the county assembly on March 17 in Brighton. Coors is challenging U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Golden Democrat.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

It’s too early to draw strong conclusions from those numbers, suggested Douglas County GOP Chairman Mark Baisley. “We are finding that many Romney voters are pledging, while the vast majority of supporters for the other candidates are not pledging,” he wrote in an email to The Statesman.

Other Republican officials also warned against counting out candidates without large numbers of pledged delegates at this stage, noting that the Paul campaign isn’t hiding its strategy to amass delegates under the radar and has explicitly instructed supporters to stay uncommitted until the last minute.

Still, Paul delegates broke their cover in Denver, running a strong second behind Romney among declared supporters. According to a delegate breakdown posted by the Denver Republicans, Romney won 33 delegates to the state convention, followed by 23 for Paul’s 23, six for Santorum and four pledged to Gingrich, with 58 uncommitted. Out of the delegates Denver is sending to the 1st Congressional District convention, 28 are bound to Romney, 26 to Paul, seven to Santorum and four to Gingrich, with the remaining 44 uncommitted.

“A lot of people are trying to keep their head down and not be a hero,” said Denver GOP chairman Danny Stroud, referencing the large number of uncommitted delegates elected at his assembly.

Santorum isn’t sweeping up delegates at smaller, rural county assemblies, either.

Pitkin County GOP chairwoman Frieda Wallison said there are just three or four Romney delegates heading to state from her county, including herself, but that the rest are officially uncommitted. She said that there are several Pitkin County Republicans supporting Paul but noted that they’re going unpledged. There wasn’t much support evident for Santorum at the Pitkin assembly, she observed.

“There is a sense developing that the party needs to make a decision about its candidate,” she said, adding that she thinks things will get sorted out before the convention but could take until June.

“There is a very, very strong sense among Republicans that we need to defeat the current president,” she said. “As these primaries and caucuses wear on, that sense is building. My assumption is people will coalesce — and in my view they’ll coalesce around Romney.”

Alamosa County sent its entire delegation uncommitted, said county GOP secretary Theresa Shown, who was elected as a delegate herself.

“Committing toward a particular presidential candidate wasn’t high on anyone’s thought process,” she said with a chuckle. In the more rural counties, delegates get elected based on them knowing you. There’s very few strangers in the town of Alamosa.”

While Republicans are wise to take their time deciding, she said, delegates are going to have to declare in April if they hope to advance to the RNC.

“I won’t be voting for someone who’s uncommitted,” she said. “If it’s all tied up and in a bag by then, it won’t matter, but it looks like this year it won’t be.”

If the race is still in play in three weeks, there could be some serious arm-twisting at the state and congressional district assemblies, including potential visits by at least some of the presidential candidates. Colorado’s showdown takes place during a two-week lull in the primary calendar, giving the candidates an incentive to garner headlines out of the state’s conventions, note party officials.

La Plata County chair Velbeth Jones said she thinks Colorado’s support could still be up for grabs by the time delegates convene in Denver.

“Everybody’s still weighing their options,” she said. “It’s really going to come into play at the state. There’s a group of people that are very committed, but I would say there’s still a good number of people that are uncommitted right now.”

Part of the reason, she said, is because it’s hard to choose between four candidates. “If there’s two in the race, there would be no problem, people could pick,” she said, adding that she has “some strong leanings — I can rationalize for a couple of them — this one’s got this, this and this, and I think that’s important, and the same with the other candidates.”

Adams County Republicans are sending their entire delegation uncommitted, a choice the county officers made early on. “We’re not at the county assembly to play presidential politics,” said county Credentials Committee Chairman Bob McCoy, whose wife, Pat, chairs the county party. He said the county party very deliberately left presidential preferences out of the process so that county assembly delegates could focus on countywide and legislative races.

But that didn’t stop first-time delegate and Santorum supporter Amy Puls from joining with her cohorts to make sure they voted for each other at the Adams County gathering.

“I feel this is a very important election and I wanted to get more involved and make sure we get a good, consistent conservative that can ignite our Republican base and get all our base, conservative Republicans out to vote and not send another moderate to get defeated because I think beating Obama this year is key,” she said.

“It’s ABO — Anybody But Obama — for all of us, but I think Santorum represents the conservative base.”

Following is the schedule for the remaining Republican county assemblies and conventions:

• March 23: Lincoln County;

• March 24: Boulder, Conejos, Costilla, Delta, Eagle, El Paso, Elbert, Garfield, Jackson, Jefferson, Mesa, Moffat, Prowers, Pueblo, Larimer and Weld counties;

• March 25: Routt and Sedgwick counties.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com