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Oregon's electorate - at least the portion made up of registered Democrats - will have a very meaningful role in the presidential primaries this year.

And that's indisputably a good thing.

Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's visit to Portland and other parts of Oregon last week demonstrated the intensity of the public's interest in this campaign. Obama filled Memorial Coliseum to near capacity on Friday and his soaring rhetoric showed why he has been such an exciting force in the 2008 election.

We are especially pleased to see Obama energize new voters in Oregon who otherwise might have ignored the state's May 20 primary.

With both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton competing vigorously in Oregon, participation in the state's primary will increase beyond the disappointing levels of the past few May elections. The Obama-Clinton contest 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 in local elections throughout the state, where both partisan and non-partisan races will be decided in May, a live presidential primary race will mean greater voter turnout among Democrats. However, since Republicans already have settled on Sen. John McCain as their presidential nominee, there may be less excitement on the GOP side, and that could result in an Oregon electorate that skews ever more blue in May.

Look who's not coming to Oregon

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. Nor should it be used to justify Oregon's own archaic practices when it comes to presidential politics.

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 up-close look at Joe Biden, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich or Tom Vilsack.

For Republicans, the only choice is McCain - no Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney or even the ever-persistent Mike Huckabee. And of course, independent 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.

Earlier date, open primaries

The fact that Oregon will play a role, at least, in deciding between two finalists on the Democratic side is a definite improvement over past elections.

But without changes, Oregon likely will be back in its more familiar state of irrelevancy four years from now. To ensure the next presidential primary generates as much excitement as this one, Oregon should move that portion of its primary to an earlier date - one that still complies with the rules of the political parties.

Oregon voters also should support a renewed attempt by former Secretary of State Phil Keisling to open the state's regular May primary to all voters. Although the open-primary initiative wouldn't apply directly to presidential elections, it would increase overall citizen interest in primaries. Certainly, voters in Washington State can attest to the popular power of both open primaries and a more timely presidential primary.

The alternative is to hope that by some fluke Oregon's limited-participation primary will still matter in May. But that's likely to happen only once in a lifetime.

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