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Our Views: Late to the race
Even if GOP contest stays competitive, voters in some states have fewer choices
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

As pundits spend the day assessing results of Saturday's South Carolina Republican primary, Georgia voters await their turn in line to select the nominee.

South Carolina's primary followed the traditional opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. The campaign circus now packs its tents and heads to Florida for a crucial Jan. 31 primary.

Georgians will go to the polls March 6, the same day 10 other states hold primaries or caucuses. What we don't know now is what the race or the field of candidates will look like when that day arrives.

Before the first vote was cast in South Carolina, the original lineup of seven Republican candidates had been sliced to four. Following Saturday's results, it's possible that quartet may get even smaller in the near future. By the time Georgians go to the polls, the choices may be down to a select few.

It's rare these days that a race remains combative beyond the first few states. That's because we all know the real fuel of a campaign is money. Candidates who have it can drive on through the primary gauntlet and withstand a loss or two along the way. Those with underfunded campaigns must stake their scarce dollars on a few key races, and if those don't fall the right way, they're done.

Such was the case with Michele Bachmann, who put all her eggs in Iowa's basket and bailed soon afterward. So did John Huntsman shortly after his all-in effort in New Hampshire produced a distant third-place finish. And last week, Rick Perry pulled the plug on his run when his candidacy continued to founder after weak finishes in the first two contests.

Three contests to date, 47 states to go, and the field has been nearly cut in half. That means most of the country will never get to vote for some who might have offered ideas that would appeal to many Republican voters.

Today's horse race nature of campaigns has made them more dependent than ever on polling, cash, TV face time and predictions from analysts rather than actual votes. As a result, based on a few hundred thousand votes cast resulting in a handful of delegates assigned, several candidates are no longer an option to voters.

No one knows how many votes Bachmann, Huntsman or Perry might have earned in Georgia, but their backers now must shop for new candidates. That includes followers of Atlanta's Herman Cain, who surged in the polls late last year but exited the race weeks before Iowans voted.

As of today, it appears the GOP race has come down to two main contenders, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum trailing. If these choices don't appeal to you, and the earlier candidates offered more of what you want, you're out of luck. Because two small states rejected them, our choices are limited to the survivors. To win the presidency, you need 270 electoral votes from across the U.S. But to reach the November ballot, you often only need to cash in on votes in a few small states cast before the spring thaw.

As we have pointed out before, there is no easy way to change this chaotic system. Remember, it's not a true election but a party-led method to determine nominees. And the process, messy as it is, usually produces candidates who have been tested and examined by the electorate. Yet for most of us, that scrutiny is conducted from afar through the media and not up close in our communities they way we'd prefer.

There's only one reason Iowa and New Hampshire vote first: tradition. This remains so even as states seek to leapfrog each other on the calendar to remain relevant. Those with competitive races benefit from having candidates who show up, spend money and focus attention on them.

It's not an easy system to change chiefly because the national parties do not have full control over how states select their convention delegates. Past attempts to create order from anarchy have mostly failed. There isn't even any consistency in how the contests are conducted: some are caucuses, some primaries; some states assign delegates proportionally, others are winner take all. It's a hodgepodge of rules that are hard to understand, much less improve upon.

Unifying this unruly herd of cats likely seems futile. And Iowa and New Hampshire will always insist on their time-honored spot at the front of the calendar. Thus, we seem stuck with a flawed system that keeps many party voters from being able to select from a full slate of candidates and choose a nominee on merit.

Fortunately, it appears likely the race will be competitive March 6 when Georgians vote, albeit with a reduced field. We hope the contenders will take time to visit our state, shake hands and explain their ideas to us face-to-face. A contested race will serve to boost turnout, which will have an impact on other items on the ballot that include liquor sales votes in Hall and other area counties and city council special elections in Flowery Branch.

But in the long run, if the parties can't find a way to spread the influence around more effectively and create more of a competitive road to the nomination, they may as well go back to the old method of choosing their nominees - party bosses gathering in smoke-filled rooms.

To voters in many states who will have little say in the nomination choice, the result would be about the same.

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