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Republicans feud over drawn-out nominating calendar

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
updated 5:22 PM EST, Sun March 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some Republicans think drawn-out nominating calendar gives Obama advantage
  • Proportional awarding of delegates could drag out contest until summer
  • Calendar was designed to allow more states to have a say in deciding nominee
  • Candidates wanted calendar to begin in February or early March

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Dayton, Ohio (CNN) -- Chris Christie called it "the dumbest idea anybody ever had."

Mitch Daniels has criticized it.

And according to the chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, it's "water torture."

The slow-burning Republican presidential nominating process is facing scrutiny and sharp criticism as the increasingly bitter GOP primary fight threatens to drag on into the spring and perhaps the summer.

The anxiety is coming from Republicans, many of them supporters of front-runner Mitt Romney, who worry that the drawn-out fight for delegates has forced the GOP candidates into costly intra-party warfare, while President Barack Obama is free to raise vast sums of money and strategize for the general election.

The most contentious aspect of the GOP calendar, adopted by the Republican National Committee at a 2010 meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, is the rule requiring primary and caucus states voting in March to allocate their delegates proportionally, instead of on a winner-take-all basis.

"It was a bad idea then and it's a bad idea now," said former Arizona GOP Chairman Randy Pullen, a Romney supporter who opposed the new nominating rules when he served on the RNC. "It's been a long drawn-out affair, and that's not a positive thing."

"I saw right away that we were going to have a lot of proportional states, and that was going to drag things out," Pullen said. "I didn't feel that made much sense given that we have a sitting Democratic president."

Supporters of the calendar are aggressively defending the system they put in place.

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By diluting the delegate value of the March states, proponents of the new rules argued that more states and more Republicans would have a say in picking the party's nominee.

Better-funded campaigns, meanwhile, would be prevented from boxing out their opponents early by racking up big delegate margins in the first few contests.

"We wanted to give every candidate a fair shot to make their case to the Republican base, and that's the bottom line," said former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who pressed for the changes. "We wanted to make it competitive. The members were tired of the nomination fight being over in six weeks."

Looking back at Democrats' experience in 2008

At the time the calendar proposal was under consideration, many RNC members were enviously looking back on the 2008 Democratic nomination fight, a prolonged and dramatic battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton that honed each candidate's political skills and energized millions of Democrats nationwide.

Conservatives on the committee, meanwhile, groused that a handful of early voting states handed them a nominee, John McCain, who failed to inspire the Republican base.

But critics of the new process argue that 2008 was a flawed model for the 2012 calendar because neither party faced the monumental task of unseating a sitting president.

"I think these RNC rules that turned to proportional awarding of delegates, I mean, this was the dumbest idea anybody ever had," Christie, another Romney supporter, recently told Fox News. "We voted against it at the RNC. The reason we did is you're running against an incumbent president who will not have a primary. So your idea? Make ours longer so we can beat each other up longer."

The architects of the calendar changes say the 2012 campaign is largely unfolding as it was intended to when the RNC voted to adopt the new rules.

The Republican nominee was not decided early on by a handful of contests. States as diverse as Georgia, Ohio and Alaska are about to weigh in on Super Tuesday. And candidates such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich with ragtag campaign operations are still in the game, albeit with the help of their super PACs.

"I'm sure every candidate wishes it was over, but the reality is we've got to make sure we nominate someone who can not just win a couple early states, but who can win in tough states, who can win in diverse states, who can win in regions they are not from," said Mississippi national committeeman Henry Barbour, who voted in favor of the rules change in 2010.

"If you can't win across the country, you aren't going to be able to win in November," added Barbour, a former Rick Perry supporter who endorsed Romney last week.

If the nomination battle has lumbered on too long, supporters of the March proportionality rule point out that the process was originally supposed to begin in February.

They blame Florida Republicans for defying the RNC and moving their state's primary into January, forcing Iowa and New Hampshire officials to set earlier dates as well.

Calendar defenders also scoff at complaints that seem to be emerging mainly from the Romney orbit.

Two engineers of the revised rules, Steele and former New Jersey committeeman David Norcross, accused Romney supporters of "whining" about measures that have been in place for well over a year.

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If anything is to blame for the drawn-out nature of the nomination fight, they argued, it's Romney's seeming inability to close the deal with Republican voters.

"You can curse the game, but it's how the player is playing the game that's more problematic for them," Steele said of the Romney campaign.

Norcross said Romney should be grateful for the lengthened process because it's given him time to recover from his verbal gaffes and beat back challenges from various surging opponents.

"One of the things we thought about was giving candidates an opportunity to stumble and recover," Norcross said. "And there have been a number of stumbles and recoveries. In that respect, the Romney people above all should not be whining about the process. Their candidate is the better for being contested in so many places."

Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, acknowledged that the calendar rules are not ideal but said the extended fight against Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul has given their campaign a chance to show off its organizational muscle.

"We're playing the hand we're dealt," Saul said in an email to CNN. "Unlike our opponents, we at least know the rules to play by so have been able to get on every ballot with a full slate of delegates. Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich both failed to get on the ballot in their home state of Virginia, neither has a full slate in Tennessee and Senator Santorum is ineligible for 15 delegates in Ohio."

As the RNC began mulling adjustments to the calendar, advisers to the potential presidential campaigns were consulted in a series of hearings throughout 2009 and 2010.

Beth Myers, Romney's 2008 campaign manager and a senior adviser to the current effort, submitted a letter to Steele saying that the previous election calendar had started too close to the holiday season.

She suggested that the early contests should begin in late February or early March -- a common sentiment among all the potential campaigns, Republicans familiar with the discussions told CNN.

Myers also encouraged the RNC to explore ways to let a greater number of states have a voice in the primary process, outlining a vision for a nomination process strikingly similar to the one currently under way.

"One of the goals of the process must be to encourage as many people as possible to participate in our Republican primaries," Myers wrote in the 2009 letter.

"Historically, the states with the most hard-fought contests have been the ones with the most volunteers and excitement for our ticket in the general election," she wrote. "Any changes the RNC makes with respect to the delegate selection process should be undertaken with this goal of more participation in the Republican selection process in mind."

The revisions to the nominating calendar rules were still being hotly debated when members of the RNC arrived at the Kansas City Marriott for their summer meeting in August 2010.

After the RNC's Temporary Delegate Selection Committee voted to send the calendar reform proposal to the full committee, Steele presided over nearly an hour of debate between members.

Passage of the resolution was still in doubt until one of Romney's staunchest allies -- former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, then the chairman of the state's Republican Party -- rose to deliver an impassioned argument in favor of the new rules.

Sununu said that while the calendar proposal was not perfect, it would bring order to the chaotic 2008 process while also protecting the traditional role of early voting states like New Hampshire.

"If we create chaos again, we will end up selecting the wrong nominee and we will have lost the momentum we gain in 2010 and we will allow Barack Obama to waltz into the White House," Sununu said.

Barbour, the Mississippi committeeman, said that was the moment when he realized the 2012 primary fight would ultimately look very different from elections past.

"That may have been the difference maker," Barbour said. "Sununu made the persuasive closing argument and probably swung the vote."

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