Pignanelli: Start with a recently concluded legislative session dominated by "message bills," add a fair amount of angst for an antagonistic Republican president and you have the recipe to instill enthusiasm for Democrats to attend their caucus meetings. Such was the result Tuesday.

Normally, Democrats turn out for their biannual neighborhood meetings only when there is a competitive presidential or gubernatorial race. John Kerry and Scott Matheson Jr. are undoubtedly the nominees and there is no contest. But Democrats are ravenous to express disgust about national and state politics — which they did at the local meetings. (My neighbors were certainly vocal at the combined caucus meeting for my legislative district, held at the Capitol.)

Salt Lake County Democratic Party Chair Nichole Adams was ecstatic with an overall turnout that was more than double from the 2002 attendance figures. In fact, many precincts in Republican strongholds that normally experience a handful of attendees were flooded with double-digit numbers. State party chairman Donald Dunn, along with local party officials, targeted phone calls to residents who voted in the recent presidential primary to encourage participation. Utahns concerned about events in Iraq, problems with public education or an overall frustration with the "establishment" utilized Tuesday's meetings to voice concerns and volunteer for campaigns. Party leaders love the caucus system — it is an effective tool to recruit ground troops for candidates.

Political observers across the state heralded caucus attendance in both parties and the opportunities for Utahns to be involved in the democratic process. At the risk of sounding cynical (because I am), I appreciate the emotional attraction for neighborhood political meetings, but in the 21st century they are an archaic, cumbersome activity that excludes most citizens. I certainly enjoy visiting with old friends and making new acquaintances, but the system needs to be replaced by open primaries.

Incumbents and challengers have now declared their candidacy, and disappointing is the departure of legislators who made a positive difference for all Utahns. For years Rep. Judy Buffmire led the fight to require better insurance coverage of mental illness. Some of Judy's biggest fans were businesses and insurance companies who aggressively opposed her efforts but appreciated her warm and gracious manner.

As an attorney, I can state with absolute objectivity that there are not enough lawyers in the Legislature. Thus, many of us politicos were saddened by the announcement by Rep. Scott Daniels and Sen. David Gladwell that they would not be returning in 2005. Daniels, a former presiding judge of the 3rd District Court, commanded bipartisan respect for his knowledge and ability to mediate difficult issues. Gladwell was well regarded for his openness and practical legal expertise.

Webb: While Democrats were suffering in boring caucus meetings with nothing better to do than vilify our good president, Republicans flooded their meetings to do meaningful work.

Forty-one good people from my Centerville neighborhood gathered to do their civic duty. They elected new voting precinct leadership, five county convention delegates and two state convention delegates.

Based on my observations that evening and discussions with numerous other caucus attendees from other areas, I believe the Republican gubernatorial race remains wide open after this first test of candidate strength and support.

The real election season now begins. Pre-season is over. The 3,500 GOP state delegates stand waiting to be wooed. It's win or

go home, at least for seven of the nine candidates who won't survive beyond the May 8 state convention.

Some of the candidates will claim overwhelming caucus success, but I don't believe any candidate won big or lost big in the caucuses. No candidate ensured a convention victory or suffered a mortal injury. I believe far more than a majority of new delegates are undecided and will carefully scrutinize the candidates before making a decision. At my caucus the attendees elected delegates (including yours truly) who are undecided. A straw poll showed 29 of the caucus attendees were undecided. Jon HuntsmanJr. shows some strength with five supporters among the 41 attendees. Gov. Olene Walker had two firm supporters, and no one else had more than one.

Turnout was high, and moderate Republicans showed up in good numbers. I don't believe any ideological wing of the party or any special interest group won an inordinate number of delegates. Public education had strong support at the caucuses, but many attendees were skeptical of the Utah Education Association.

Electability seemed as important to delegates as ideology and issues. Delegates want a nominee who can defeat Democrat Scott Matheson Jr.

In short, I believe this campaign is still anyone's to win or lose. It's now in the hands of 3,500 delegates, and the candidates' task is to sell themselves.

Getting in front of 3,500 delegates is a highly formidable challenge. Here's the math: Candidates have 40 days, including weekends, between now and May 8 to win delegate support. That means they have to average 87.5 delegate contacts per day, seven days a week, to meet personally with them all. At the same time, they will try to attend and put on a show at as many of the 29 county conventions as possible, all scheduled during April. They will also receive numerous debate other public appearance invitations. And Walker also has to carry on as governor.

So they face a mad scramble, a killer schedule, and essentially an impossible task. Delegates can count on lots of mail, e-mail, videos, DVDs and live and recorded phone calls, as well as contact with surrogates and prominent supporters of candidates. For candidates, it is an immense organizational and logistical undertaking. Makes me tired just thinking of it.


Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A recent candidate for Salt Lake mayor, Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.