Polls open until 7 p.m. for Missouri's 'beauty contest' today

2012-02-07T00:15:00Z 2012-02-28T21:28:42Z Polls open until 7 p.m. for Missouri's 'beauty contest' todayBY JAKE WAGMAN jwagman@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8268 stltoday.com

ST. LOUIS • White House hopeful Rick Santorum crisscrossed Missouri last week, hoping to inject some meaning into the state's "beauty contest" Republican primary today.

It may be a lonely position.

Because of a mix of party decree and legislative inaction, taxpayers will foot the bill for a statewide election that will be officially meaningless for Republicans and virtually irrelevant for Democrats.

Many Republicans were in favor of scrapping the election altogether, which comes with an estimated price tag of nearly $7 million.

The candidate with the most to gain on Tuesday — and about the only GOP contender talking about the Missouri primary — is Santorum, who is seeking to plant his flag as the leading alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Newt Gingrich, for reasons that remain ambiguous, did not sign up for the Missouri primary ballot, giving Santorum the rare, if unconventional, opportunity to go head-to-head with the front-runner Romney.

Santorum has made stops all over the state in the run-up to Tuesday's election, including one in St. Charles County, where he told supporters: "You have a big role to play in this election."

"We need your support," Santorum said. "We need the bellwether state of Missouri."

Despite its lack of import, officials are expecting a respectable turnout of nearly 23 percent, an indicator that there is a certain stalwart constituency of voters who will cast a ballot no matter the stakes.

Democrats are also urging their supporters to go to the polls, to dutifully mark their preference for President Barack Obama.

It won't be the first time Missourians cast their ballot for mostly symbolic reasons. In the last statewide primary in August 2010, more than 70 percent of voters approved a referendum against the mandate provisions of Obama's health care overhaul plan. The measure made national headlines, yet legal experts questioned its practical utility.

Republicans never intended for Tuesday's vote to be purely a hypothetical exercise. In fact, they took steps to avoid that exact scenario.

The GOP-controlled Legislature approved a measure that would have pushed back the date of the primary in order to avoid running afoul of party laws that allowed only a handful of states to hold a primary election before March 6. States risked losing convention delegates if they skipped ahead.

But the legislation that contained the new primary date was in a larger elections bill that was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, for unrelated reasons. When the effort to push back the election date died again in a special session, the state's Republican Party opted instead to select its nominee in caucuses next month.

But the Feb. 7 election remained, even if it was rendered inert.

"It's totally ridiculous," said state Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who pushed unsuccessfully to eliminate the election. "I've only been up there nine-and-a-half years, but it's one of the stupidest things I've ever seen."

Habitual voters — including Engler himself, he acknowledged — will show up at the polls. But that does not make it worth the expense, he said, especially when the state is attempting to shed hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget.

"If we wanted to have an election to choose your favorite flavor of ice cream, and we had a good turnout, does that make it worth the $6.5 million to have the election?" Engler said.

Election officials have predicted a turnout of nearly 23 percent Tuesday. While that's less than one out of every four voters, the number would not be dramatically lower than previous presidential primaries.

In 2008, when there were competitive races in both parties, the turnout for the Missouri primary was about 36 percent.

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the state's chief elections official, has been critical of the GOP's move to a caucus system.

Even a lightly attended primary election has more turnout than a caucus, which requires voters to dedicate time on their weekend to gather and select a nominee.

In a statement last week, Carnahan, a Democrat, encouraged voters to cast a ballot on Tuesday to 'show the political party insiders that they want to have a say in this process."

"Anytime voters cast their ballots, it has an impact," she said.

The state Democratic Party wants its members to vote, as well. For the party, the vote will count toward awarding convention delegates. But with Obama's selection as the nominee assured, Democratic participation is more about obligation than urgency.

Republicans taking part Tuesday have a trickier equation. Romney has not made any public campaign appearances in Missouri, while Gingrich did not even sign up for the ballot, a move he has called a "conscious decision."

And most of the candidates who will appear on the ballot aren't even in the race anymore, including Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson will also appear on the Republican ballot, even though he is pursuing the White House now as a Libertarian candidate.

So how do you judge the results?

"You have to do your analysis a little bit different than normal," said Dave Evans, a Republican from O'Fallon. He plans to view Tuesday's outcome in terms of "Romney and non-Romney."

Tuesday's vote may present the best opportunity for Santorum, the narrow winner of the Iowa caucus who has already shown his appeal to social conservatives. The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania made his pitch directly to Missouri voters last week, holding campaign events in Hannibal, Lee's Summit and Columbia.

"We want to send a message," said Carol Wessel Boyer, a Santorum supporter from Lincoln County.

If Santorum does win the vote Tuesday, it could provide a bounce into the next round of primaries. But it could have the opposite effect if Santorum, the only GOP contender so far to do any meaningful campaigning in Missouri, loses to Ron Paul or to someone who is no longer in the race.

Some have suggested that the primary, if nothing else, could provide guidance to Republicans who take part in the March 17 caucus process.

But that affair could prove even more meaningless than the primary vote if the GOP nominee is already decided, a distinct possibility given Romney's current advantage and the wave of preceding "Super Tuesday" contests on March 6.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a Romney supporter, was among those in favor of scrapping the state's primary once it became clear the vote would not count. But no politician wants to be accused of not voting. Blunt said last week he had already filled out an absentee ballot.

He urged others to submit their vote as well.

"We're having it," Blunt said of the election. "It's not going to cost any less if people don't show up."

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