HELENA, Mont. — Supporters of long-shot presidential hopeful Ron Paul say the Montana Republican Party's quirky caucus rules could create an opening for their candidate that other states don't offer.
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Under the "closed caucus" system recently adopted by the Montana GOP, voting in the Feb. 5 caucus will be limited to about 3,000 Republicans who hold party posts, such as members of Congress, statewide officeholders and precinct captains. That includes hundreds of volunteer precinct posts that have long been vacant and that some candidates are now scrambling to fill with supporters.
At least three presidential candidates — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Paul, a Texas congressman — are organizing in the state. A fourth candidate, John McCain, recently hired a Montana campaign chair.
"Some of the minor candidates are scrambling here to win in a small state so they can say, 'Look, we won somewhere,'" said political scientist Craig Wilson, a professor at Montana State University-Billings.
Terry Frisch, an ardent Paul supporter, said he found it remarkably easy to secure a precinct post. The Lewis and Clark County GOP had 80 precinct positions open when he asked for a spot recently. He was given one, and no one asked whom he was supporting.
"I think some candidates aren't doing anything in this state," Frisch said. "I think by far Ron Paul has the most activity. ... A lot more people who support Ron Paul are interested in filling these vacancies."
Huckabee state chairman Steve Daines said some supporters have told him they want to get the precinct jobs, but he is not pushing people into the positions because he believes only people committed to building the state party should take the jobs.
Change in the power base?
State GOP officials have recommended to counties that they not rush to fill the slots, so they can select from a larger pool of applicants rather than just pick the first people who come along.
"In some counties, people are looking at Ron Paul supporters and they are not sure who we are and what we are all about," said Paul's state coordinator, David Hart. "Some people are concerned there is going to be a change in the power base, and they should be."
Paul has generally polled in the single-digits nationally and in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. But his unconventional views _ he's the only GOP candidate to oppose the Iraq war and he wants to drastically downsize the federal government _ have attracted motivated supporters and more than $18 million in campaign contributions.
The top caucus vote-getter wins all 25 of Montana's delegates — about 1 percent of the 2,516 delegates to the GOP national convention. The Montana delegates are required to support the caucus winner.
Republicans set up the system in the fall in hopes of attracting presidential candidates to the state, which doesn't hold its open primary — a nonbinding preference vote — until June, long after the nominations are expected to be decided.
But none of the candidates has visited since the new rules were adopted. Romney spoke at the party's summer convention before the caucus was designed. A son has since campaigned in Billings.
Party officials said they don't believe one candidate has been able to gain an unfair advantage.
"You don't want one campaign who just happens to be the first in the state to stack the deck," said Chris Wilcox, GOP executive director. "And in terms of building a Republican Party, we don't want people who are just going to come in and cast a vote and take off."
Technically, precinct captains are supposed to discern the preferred candidate of people living in the precinct and vote for that candidate, then stick around to help with party organization.
Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist who has studied the country's primary system, called Montana's system a throwback to days when party insiders picked delegates.
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