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The three Republicans and two Democrats from big and small states, East and West, make an unusual sales team.

But then Republican Govs. Mike Leavitt, Utah, and Jim Edgar, Illinois; Democratic Govs. Ben Nelson, Nebraska, and Mel Carnahan, Missouri; and Republican Ohio Senate President Stanley Aronoff have an unusual product.They are the front line of a national campaign that was launched Monday to sell the states and the press on Leavitt's proposed "Conference of the States."

That gathering of state delegations - if called for by three-quarters of the state legislatures - would convene in hopes of adopting an action plan urging the federal government to return power to the states. Organizers say the message would be one that Congress could not ignore.

The Council of State Governments voted at its annual meeting this week to become the umbrella group for the gathering, clearing one major hurdle for Leavitt. The next stage is to convince legislatures to adopt resolutions to convene the gathering, and to get the message out to the press about what the conference is.

To begin, the core group of supporters held a rallying seminar for the 400 state officials attending the Council of State Governments meeting. Then Leavitt and Nelson left for Washington Tuesday for a heavy schedule of interviews with the national press on the topic.

Leavitt - the new president-elect of the Council of State Governments - noted that all states have complained about "unfunded mandates" from the federal government - or orders that they provide services without receiving federal funding for them.

"We face a dilemma of extremes," he said. "We've been complaining, but that hasn't done any good. Our only other option has been a constitutional convention" - but that is seen as extreme, because it could lead to a vast rewriting of the Constitution.

"We need something in between," Leavitt said. And his Conference of the States could be that - bringing delegations together to discuss ways to balance the system. Its final "states' petition" would go to states for ratification before presentation to Congress.

"We need to speak more clearly," said Carnahan, president of the Council of State Governments. "We're on the threshold of a great debate. Let's get in and not miss this opportunity."

Nelson, past president of the group, added that states can wait no longer. "Since 1990, Congress has passed 40 major bills imposing unfunded mandates on states . . . That's more than it passed during the '70s and '80s combined."

Edgar - another past president of the council - said the GOP takeover of Congress and a focus on changing the way government works "has given us a window of opportunity. But it won't last long."

He added it will be important for states to voice concerns as Congress is debating issues such as a balanced budget amendment - which states favor only as long as the federal government doesn't balance it by passing off responsibilities to states.

Aronoff - vice chairman of the council - pleaded for state legislators nationwide to act quickly on resolutions to convene the conference. "Let's go out and missionary-ize. Let's not let it fail."

He noted that model resolutions - along with a long paper Leavitt wrote about why the conference is needed - is being sent to all legislatures. He said he hopes all will introduce it the same day to increase publicity about the event.

Some state officials said they were ready for immediate action. Democratic North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt said, "North Carolina will be ready to pass it right now. It is a new day . . . Maybe we ought to have a new contract between states and the federal government."

Leavitt first dreamed of the conference a year ago after reading about a similar gathering of states in the 1780s - which eventually led to the Constitution.

He also read that James Madison predicted in the Federalist Papers that if the central government ever became oppressive, the states would rise together to restore order - which he said is exactly what they are planning to do.

He warned the group that the event must not be seen as partisan - which is why people from both parties and all areas are on the front lines pushing it.

He also warned that it must look only at ways to change processes - and not get bogged down on individual issues ranging from abortion to school prayer. Changes endorsed might include such things as allowing states to strike down a federal law if three-quarters of state legislatures vote to do so.