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February 5, 2008

Playing Hardball In West Virginia

Almost heaven ... West Virginia ...

Mike Huckabee took the West Virginia state convention and the state's 18 delegates as John McCain's team threw him their support to defeat Mitt Romney. The state allocates delegates on a winner-take-all basis, and the late action by McCain's delegates keeps Romney from winning any of them. It closes out one of the states in which Romney could use to keep pace, but the move has some Republicans seeing a different kind of red:

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee won 18 delegates here Tuesday as backers of rival John McCain threw him their support to prevent Mitt Romney from capturing the winner-take-all GOP state convention vote.

In first contest decided on Super Tuesday, Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, bested Romney on the second ballot with 51.5 percent of the 1,133 delegates attending the state GOP's first-ever presidential nominating convention. Romney was backed by 47.4 percent.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who poses the biggest threat nationally to front-runner McCain, had entered the event with the largest pledged bloc and attracted the largest vote — 41 percent — on the first ballot. Huckabee captured 33 percent on the first tally; McCain, 15 percent and Texas congressman Ron Paul, 10 percent.

Some of the correspondence I've seen on this topic calls this a dirty trick. It's not -- it's just good, old-fashioned hardball. Mike Huckabee's continued presence in the race allowed it to happen, and it may not be the last state where his campaign trips Romney's run for delegates.

Romney's team wasted no time calling this a "backroom deal":

"Unfortunately, this is what Senator McCain's inside Washington ways look like: he cut a backroom deal with the tax-and-spend candidate he thought could best stop Governor Romney's campaign of conservative change.

"Governor Romney had enough respect for the Republican voters of West Virginia to make an appeal to them about the future of the party based on issues. This is why he led on today's first ballot. Sadly, Senator McCain cut a Washington backroom deal in a way that once again underscores his legacy of working against Republicans who are interested in championing conservative policies and rebuilding the party."

While there may be some truth in this -- clearly the state had more of a leaning towards Romney than either McCain or Huckabee -- it's a little like arguing against the Electoral College. The rules were set in advance, and the result may not represent the one-man, one-vote principle very well, but we knew that going into the contest.

In fact, it shows why indirect mechanisms like caucuses and conventions are much less desirable than direct primaries. It turns these elections into games, and it increases the cynicism of the voters at a time when we need to attract them and make them believe they can make a difference. The last-minute hardball by the McCain campaign couldn't have been pulled in a primary state.

I'll be live-blogging from Minnesota's caucus tonight, where I'll probably be one of the few skeptics to attend.


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