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Every year, Congress tweaks federal law to try to make ethanol more realistic as a fuel for cars.
The grain alcohol consumes more energy to create than it produces. Still, every politician in Washington inexplicably learns the intricacies of the corn-based biofuel.
Ethanol's mysterious hold on politicians' psyches can be credited to the Iowa caucuses, the first test for presidential candidates and the source of that Midwestern state's heavy influence on American politics.
Ethanol was Exhibit A on Friday at the Western Presidential Primary Symposium in Salt Lake City, the evidence of why Utah and its Western neighbors need to band together with their own early presidential selection process. While ethanol is debated ad nauseam, Western issues like preparing for drought, managing public lands, guiding growth and complying with the Endangered Species Act are glossed over.
"When is it you ever knew a presidential candidate's position on water?" asked New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
That's all about to change, according to Western primary boosters. University professors, state executives, political advisers and lawmakers gathered Friday to build momentum for a scheduled Western States Presidential Primary on Feb. 5, 2008 - the first Tuesday in February. So far, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico have signed on.
"In Utah and the West, we just could not be less relevant," said Natalie Gochnour, former aide to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, Utah's ex-governor. "We're not only left out, we're disenfranchised. We're on the outside looking in in the most important national election. We not only don't get heard, we get stereotyped - what we wear, how we live. We have an obligation to use a primary as a strategic building block to political relevancy."
With a Feb. 5 date, the Western States Primary would come fifth in the presidential campaign - after Iowa's and Nevada's caucuses and New Hampshire's and South Carolina's primaries - but before Super Tuesday.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Richardson want their colleagues in surrounding states - specifically Idaho and Montana - to join. A bill in Montana's Legislature failed last year over budget concerns. Another attempt will be made next year.
Democratic strategist Michael Stratton said the national party is noticing the West's growth and changing economies and demographics. The eight Intermountain states turned solidly red in the 2004 presidential campaign. Still, in three of those states, Sen. John Kerry was within five points of President Bush. And half of those red states have Democratic governors - Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona. The Democrats, Stratton said, have concluded the West is their future. You won't see another Democratic presidential candidate pronounce Nevada and Colorado with a patrician, East Coast accent - as in Nev-ah-da.
"The West has become the battleground," said the Denver-based public affairs and business consultant.
Richardson agrees. Even in Utah, he says, Democrats will have a resurgence. "The trend is Democratic. You are going to see a dramatic change'' in Utah, Richardson told a breakfast meeting of Utah's Democratic Party leadership.
The New Mexico governor is widely rumored as a presidential candidate. In speeches to Utah Democrats and the symposium, he veered into criticism of the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. And he said America is lacking a federal policy on immigration and a plan for achieving energy independence.
Stratton said it is no coincidence Richardson was in Utah. He visited to stump for the primary, but also just to stump in a state that will matter - even to Democrats - come 2008. "Richardson will consider Utah critical to his strategy as a Western favored son," Stratton said.
Western Governors Association Director Pam Inmann said a regional primary would do more than force White House hopefuls to discuss traditionally Western issues, land their planes between Iowa and California and learn how to pronounce the names of the states. It can be an economic boon to the states involved.
In 2003, 10 Democratic presidential candidates visited New Hampshire 194 times, spending 316 days in the state. The same candidates stopped in Iowa 177 times, spending a total of 357 days in that state. In 2000, New Hampshire's primary generated $264 million in revenue - hotel rooms, restaurants and salaries.
Richardson said New Mexico's June 2004 caucuses gave his state a "little boost." The caucuses forced the Democratic candidates to crisscross his state, eating green chili and enchiladas. Their camps bought nearly $1 million in television ads in the Albuquerque and El Paso markets.
"Turnout was huge," he said.
Nevertheless, some states are leery to sign on.
"Even though the potential benefits are significant, it still is a big dollar amount," Inmann said.
Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson said the economic development argument couldn't persuade Montana lawmakers to set aside money for a primary. During the 2006 Legislature, Utah lawmakers approved spending $850,000 on a 2008 primary. But in the middle of a budget crisis, Colorado lawmakers cut $2.5 million in funding for that state's primary. Johnson asked Richardson to "help sell" the Montana primary a year from now.
Richardson pointed to Huntsman as the example of how to "close" the deal, noting Utah's governor visited New Mexico and met with Montana's governor to lobby for the primary. And he suggested some states consider cheaper caucuses hosted in voters' homes, rather than a state-sponsored election.
"We need you to join us," he said to representatives of Idaho and Montana. "The train is leaving the station. There's real momentum. And the benefits are so obvious."
Huntsman says the real proof of the primary's success will be when Western public lands issues get as much presidential debate as ethanol.
"When presidential contenders are as familiar with the PILT [Payment in Lieu of Taxes] program as they are with ethanol produced in Iowa, we will have accomplished our goal," he said.
* Reporter GLEN WARCHOL contributed to this story.