Idaho's two main political parties are ready to have their statewide convention hoedowns, with national-level speakers on hand to rev up the faithful. Self-congratulatory backslapping is a part of every convention. But this year some party officials do so while looking over their shoulder at a nascent independent campaign that, some fear, could draw votes away from some major-party candidates.
Coincidentally, both Republicans and Democrats will be headed to Idaho Falls for their state conventions. They'll both be hearing from possible presidential candidates. They'll both engage in hearty backslapping and the arcane art of "platform drafting."
Idaho's dominant political party, the Republicans, will hold their convention this week. For their headliner, they'll get to hear from Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon Republican who is often talked about as a 2008 presidential prospect.
Idaho Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to snare New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who is also widely considered a possible 2008 presidential candidate.
Such party conventions tend to be the epitome of insider baseball; party officers draw up elections platforms that are, depending on the year, newsmakers or not worthy of attention. Candidates up and down the ticket get to hobknob and learn how to drum up voter attention.
But this year, Republicans have some fences to mend. After a brutal primary for the Congressional District 1 nomination, religous conservative state Rep. Bill Sali swept to victory, garnering 25 percent of his party's vote. The hard-fought battle for the nomination was played out among near-record low turnout. Along the way, Sali exchanged vicious rhetoric with fellow Republicans, some of whom remain resentful.
"I'm embarrassed to be living in this state," said Chuck Malloy, who acted as spokesman for Sheila Sorensen, a Republican who ran against Sali but missed out on the nomination by more than 5,000 votes. "You're talking about a guy who ran a smear campaign and got away with it cleanly."
As might be expected, Sorensen is unlikely to appear at the convention, Malloy said. Nor would she ever, he said, be likely to offer an endorsement.
"She wants no part of him," Malloy said. "I'd rather have Hillary Clinton as president than Bill Sali as congressman."
At press time, the Sali campaign did not have a comment, according to Jesseca Sali, Rep. Sali's campaign manager.
State Controller Keith Johnson, who missed the nomination by more votes than Sorensen, said he would attend the meeting and support Sali, but not without some regrets.
"I wouldn't say it's completely automatic," Johnson said. "However, I'm a good Republican."
Though he said he and Sali were unlikely to ever be political twins, Johnson said he was nonetheless committed to the team.
"Obviously, I would have loved to have had the outcome come out a little different," Johnson said. "Bill Sali and I probably disagree a lot on how we would approach the issues, but we actually agree on a lot of issues."
Another prominent Republican still sitting on the Sali fence is House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, who famously called Sali an "idiot" during the last legislative session. Although he told The Associated Press he was "disappointed" in the Sali nomination, Newcomb said he had yet to decide if he would be attending the convention.
"I'm really trying to phase out," Newcomb said. He has retired from the House.
Democrats won't be without their own rallying. Like they did after primary night, the party will be trying hard to present a unified front.
Both parties are fond of referring to themselves as "big tent" operations, welcoming to all comers. But although Democrats will meet en masse in Idaho Falls on June 22, getting all members of their party involved hasn't been without its hiccups. Peter Nguyen, a leader of the Idaho College Democrats, posted on the liberal blog www.43rdstateblues.com this week that, try as he might, he was having a hard time getting any help from the state party in getting Brigham Young University-Idaho's college Democrats group into the event.
"It seems that here in Idaho, Democrats don't want us involved," Nguyen wrote.
One topic of conversation at both conventions, whether whispered or not, could be the quirky candidacy of BW's former publisher, Andy Hedden-Nicely.
Hedden-Nicely is running for Congress as a member of the United Party, a new party that approximately resembles an independent's campaign. Hedden-Nicely said he has begun to get some pushback from friends, mostly Democrats, who say they wish he wasn't running, because he might take away votes from the Democratic nominee, former Micron executive Larry Grant of Fruitland.
Hedden-Nicely was a hit at a pre-primary debate sponsored by the AARP of Idaho, in which his straight-talking bromides against the dominant parties got laughs and just about the only applause of the evening.
"When a guy hasn't any chance of winning, they get to say whatever they want," groused Richard Stallings, the chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party.
Likewise Malloy dismissed Hedden-Nicely's chances in a race that has already become expensive for the two major parties.
"Where's Hedden-Nicely in this equation? He just doesn't have any kind of luster," Malloy said. "That's just political reality." He suggested Hedden-Nicely join the Democratic campaign "if he wants to have any impact at all."
In fact, Stalling said Hedden-Nicely is more likely to become a problem for Republicans.
"Had Sheila Sorensen won the primary, he would be a greater threat (to Democrats)," Stallings said. "With Sali in the race, I think he and Sali will split up some votes."
Some observers said both parties ought to be wary.
"He'll draw support from independents, and maybe from Republicans who can't quite see their way to vote for Sali, but don't want to vote for a Democrat," said Boise State political science professor Jim Weatherby.
For Hedden-Nicely himself, the kibitzing was amusing.
"The Democrats ought to be happy that I'm in this race," Hedden-Nicely said. Already, he said, he had picked up a $1,000 contribution from a Republican businesswoman who, Hedden-Nicely said, told him she couldn't support Sali.
Likewise, he said, some Democrats were quietly slipping over to his campaign.
"There are Democrats who don't think Larry Grant will ever prevail who are working for my campaign," Hedden-Nicely said.
The idea of him as a spoiler candidate, he said, was a misnomer.
"Their vision is to blame everybody else for their problems, and I'm just not willing to take their burden," Hedden-Nicely said. "I told my friends in the Democratic Party that the best candidate will prevail."