Republican delegates at stake in next week’s Vt. primary

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MONTPELIER -- Vermont’s presidential primary may be overshadowed by those in six larger states voting on Super Tuesday, but in the view of at least one longtime observer of the state’s politics, the stakes could be high in a close contest.

If new polling is accurate, Mitt Romney may not reach the 50 percent threshold he needs to achieve to lock up 14 of the state’s 17 delegates. With the winner of the Republican nomination still uncertain, those 14 delegates could matter, even when total delegates at the convention will number 2,286.

Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor, said Monday that Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, should win the March 6 primary handily in Vermont.

But under rules adopted by the state Republican Party and in effect for the first time this election cycle, a winner needs a majority of the votes cast or delegates will be awarded to candidates on a proportional basis.

"If (Ron) Paul and (Rick) Santorum can hold Romney to less than 50 percent, they hurt his progress toward the nomination," Davis said.

Polling results released Monday by the Castleton Polling Institute at Castleton State College showed Romney may have trouble reaching that threshold.

Romney had support from 34 percent of likely Republican primary voters; Santorum had 27 percent; Paul had 14 percent and Newt Gingrich had 10 percent. Pollsters interviewed 800 randomly selected Vermont residents by phone from Feb. 11 to Feb. 22. That sample size carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

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Factors pointing to uncertainty include the fact that just 231 respondents called themselves likely Republican primary voters. The margin of error in that group is plus or minus 6.5 percent. In addition, 13 percent of those Republicans said they were undecided or refused to say which candidate they preferred.

Those voting in the primary will be asked to choose between the Democratic and Republican ballots. President Barack Obama is the only candidate running on the Democratic side.

Davis predicted turnout in the primary would be low -- perhaps as low as 10 percent. He noted there has been little to no campaigning in Vermont. None of the candidates has visited the state.

A new feature in this year’s primary is that, under an amendment to the Vermont Constitution approved by voters in 2010, 17-year-olds will be able to vote for the first time, so long as they turn 18 on or before Nov. 6, the day of the general election.

Students at Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax made a public-service ad urging their fellow 17-year-olds to vote. "I’m 17," 11 seniors at the high school say in unison. "My voice will be heard. Will yours?"

March 6 also is Town Meeting Day in Vermont, when voters elect local officials and vote on town and school budgets. Secretary of State Jim Condos said that while the 17-year-olds can vote in the primary, they can’t vote in the municipal elections.

Condos said those hoping to vote March 6 need to be registered to vote with local clerks by 5 p.m. Wednesday.


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