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Clinton, Obama visits are great, but primary system is still broken

As evidenced by the enthusiastic crowds that greeted Hillary Clinton last weekend in Hillsboro and Eugne, Oregon's electorate - at least the portion made up of registered Democrats - is thrilled to have a meaningful choice in the presidential primaries this year.

And that's indisputably a good thing.

Clinton's swing into Oregon on Saturday, where she spoke forcefully on federal enviromental policies, and Barack Obama's visit to Portland last month, in which he filled Memorial Coliseum to near capacity, demonstrated the intensity of the public's interest in this presidential campaign by those who otherwise might have ignored the state's May 20 primary.

Now, with both Obama and Clinton continuing to compete vigorously in Oregon, participation in the primary will increase beyond the disappointing levels of the past few May elections.

Since Republicans already have settled on Sen. John McCain as their presidential nominee, there will be less excitement on the GOP side.

The Obama-Clinton contest, however, will bring greater attention to other Democratic races, such as the primary battle between Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick, who are competing to run against Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith in the fall, and a three-way primary contest for the Secretary of State nomination.

While we are happy to see that Oregon's Democrats at least will have relevance this year, the sudden importance of this state's primary shouldn't mask the underlying problem with the way the nation chooses presidential candidates.

The lateness of this state's primary has kept Oregon on the presidential sidelines for decades. This year, Democrats have a choice between two strong candidates, but let's consider who isn't campaigning in Oregon this spring.

On the Democratic side, there will be no John Edwards or Bill Richardson (although he did show up to endorse Obama). Voters won't get an close look at Joe Biden, Chris Dodd or Dennis Kucinich.

For Republicans, the only choice is McCain - no Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee.

And, of course, nonaffiliated voters will have no say whatsoever in the presidential primary, because Oregon's political parties continue to cling to an outdated system of closed primaries.

The fact that Oregon will play a role in deciding between two finalists on the Democratic side is a definite improvement over past elections. But, it's a fluke.

Without changes, Oregon and a score of other states will be back in their more familiar state of irrelevancy four years from now.

To ensure the next presidential primary generates as much excitement as this one, leaders in Oregon's political parties should back the plan by the National Association of Secretary of Sates to implement regional primaries (www.nass.org).

And voters also should support a renewed attempt by former Secretary of State Phil Keisling to open the state's regular primary to all voters (www.oneballot.com). Although the open-primary initiative wouldn't apply directly to presidential elections, it would increase overall citizen interest in primaries.

And, as we've seen this year, that's a good thing for Oregon.