Delegating Authority

As McCain and Romney fight for the nomination, New York’s G.O.P. has a lot to lose

New Yorkers are not only nominating presidential candidates in the state primary next week; they're choosing party delegates for what may be the first contested national conventions in decades. Yet, as intriguing as it will be to watch Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battle for delegates congressional district by congressional district, the Republicans are holding their first-ever winner-take-all primary, which will spotlight all the tensions within a diminished and troubled state party.

In fact, judging by recent polls, most of New York's party honchos may not even make it to the September convention in Minneapolis, whether the presidential nomination is still up for grabs or not. That's because the GOP establishment opted for Rudy Giuliani months ago—and if John McCain winds up winning, virtually all of the county GOP chairs and Republican state senators, for example, could be out in the cold at their own national confab. That's hardly the scenario the party bosses imagined when they chose a winner-take-all format after McCain defeated their choice, George W. Bush, in several congressional districts in 2000, taking 26 delegates in what would become the state's last GOP primary to apportion the delegates by proportional representation.

Still, because of some rules-juggling that occurred after 2000, it's something of a misnomer to call the new system "winner-take-all," since only 87 of the state's 101 delegates are up for grabs on Super Tuesday. The other 14 at-large delegates are free to vote any way they choose at the convention, and 11 of them will be formally named at a state committee meeting in May. State chairman Joe Mondello—whose arm-twisting for Giuliani is the reason the county chairs all lined up behind him—will control the selection; he and the two national-committee representatives, who have also endorsed Giuliani, will automatically get the other three seats at the convention.

Mondello is said to have already quietly doled out most of those remaining at-large designations to top Giuliani supporters like Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and former state party chair Bill Powers, neither of whom are running as delegates. Ex–U.S. senator Al D'Amato—who recently endorsed John McCain—is also not running as a delegate, even though his wife, brother, son, daughter, and four members of his lobbying firm are delegate candidates for Fred Thompson, the original D'Amato choice. A state-committee spokesman won't say that most of the at-large delegates have been selected, but it's safe to assume that the absence of big names like Bruno, Powers, and D'Amato on the delegate lists—as well as former governor George Pataki, who has thus far remained neutral—is an indication that they have all been promised at-large designation. Beyond this exclusive club of so-called superdelegates, however, in the event of a McCain win in the primary, the rest of the 174 delegates and alternates would be drawn from the list of mostly obscure candidates in the 29 congressional districts submitted by the McCain campaign to the State Board of Elections at the end of last year. That would amount to a silent coup, dumping the party fixtures who have roamed convention floors for aeons.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, trails badly in the New York polls. But if he gets a bounce in Florida and ends up winning here, the state GOP would have to send a virtually anonymous group of delegates to the convention. One state-party operative told the Voice that Romney "culled his delegates from lists of even the smallest contributors." He's had no office address or operation in New York. Jeff Buley, a longtime Republican lawyer and lobbyist here, was a paid consultant to Romney's campaign and reportedly helped put together his delegates list. Besides Buley himself, the most prominent member is former Massachusetts governor William Weld. Romney has issued press releases about support committees from Alaska to Delaware, but not in New York. In addition to his dismal numbers in this state, he faces the possibility that Giuliani might pull out after a Florida rout and endorse McCain—a door that the onetime national front-runner has left slightly ajar in recent days.

A McCain win in New York might also eventually change the makeup of the state party leadership. Manhattan attorney Ed Cox, the son-in-law of former president Richard Nixon who is heading the McCain effort in New York, is said to be considering a run for state chair should McCain win New York, become the nominee, and get elected in November. Mondello, who also heads the Nassau County GOP, was re-elected by the 62 county chairs last September for a one-year term. Asked if he'd seek the party post, Cox wouldn't directly answer the question: "I have the McCain campaign, the State University of New York board of trustees, my law practice, and the League of Conservation Voters, which I chair," he said. "I have enough to worry about now."

Cox has a personal bond with McCain, having met him in Washington in 1973, when McCain was finally released from a Vietnam prison camp and welcomed at the Nixon White House. Cox says that his wife, Tricia Nixon-Cox, made appearances at McCain campaign stops in Iowa, and McCain introduced her by saying: "I wouldn't be here but for her father." Cox and his 28-year-old son Chris put the McCain organization together in New York, and it's no coincidence that two of its honorary chairs—Henry Kissinger and Pete Peterson—are former members of the Nixon cabinet. John Carley, who was Nixon's wife's driver and is now a senior vice president of Cendant Corporation, is also a McCain delegate.

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