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Bill Shipp - Let's go back to the backroom

Bring back the guys in the smoke-filled rooms. They knew how to pick candidates who could win the White House.

This current crazy-quilt primary system - which replaced the rule of cigar-smoking kingmakers - has given national Democrats two candidates, either of whom is guaranteed to split the general election voters along racial and gender lines. The Democrats would appear certain to lose the presidential election of 2008, except the Republican primary system hasn't done much better. The GOP has provided a septuagenarian, who can't tell a Shiite from a Persian. He's also a guy noted for wild temper fits, just the kind that bring on incapacitating strokes. McCain says he is suspicious of lobbyists, though his closest advisers are lobbyists.

What would happen if we went back to the good ol', pre-George McGovern days? Before cable TV's wall-to-wall coverage and the blogs' perpetual-motion opinion machines?

Never in a million years would Republican elders have chosen a crazy old maverick like John McCain as their presidential nominee. In fact, if you examine McCain under a microscope, you may see a donkey instead of an elephant.

As for the Democrats, nominating a white woman or a black man would never have been considered in the days of the backroom boys. In fact, the idea sounds more like a rejected script from a press club farce.

Anyone who didn't see a wild race-and-gender war breaking out between Obama and Hillary should stick to betting on soccer.

When Sen. George McGovern's Democrats took charge of the party back in 1972, everything changed. Strange formulae were devised for choosing primary delegates. Being "fair" was the primary's principal criterion. "Electability" was barely mentioned.

As time passed, primary rules grew increasingly arcane. Only conservatives could consider running on the Republican side - though the c-label means different things to Southerners, Northerners and Westerners. Christian evangelicals became the self-anointed political pros of the new Republican Party.

Democrats became even more extreme. A party powerbroker need not apply if she/he does not hold a union card, contribute generously to the Greens, follow Ivy League women's basketball and claim a person of color (any color) among his/her near ancestors. A Democrat does not have to be liberal. Calling oneself a "progressive" is just as good.

So you can see how much more inclusive the nomination process could become again, if both parties adopted backroom-selection rules. First, Georgia would count, at least some of the time. Right now, the Peach State might as well be a non-voting American colony.

Let us look back at the 1952 Republican convention in Chicago. Georgia fielded two delegations: one upstart outfit favoring Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and the other "regulars" pushing Sen. Robert A. Taft. Ike's crowd had a simple motto: "Taft can't win." Eisenhower, of course, did win with a major boost from Georgia.

In Los Angeles in 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy roared into the Democratic convention with Georgia's backroom boys solidly behind him. He swept the delegation at the convention and ran away with the state on Election Day. It was the last time, except for Jimmy Carter's 1976 election, that Georgia Democrats would stand so tall or have such impact.

Georgia has come a long way. This year, the Georgia presidential primary hardly mattered. It was lost in the scramble for bigger states (New York, California, etc.).

Even if, by a miracle, the backroom powers suddenly became part of the selection process, it would not matter. Georgia no longer holds a seat in the backroom boys club, where party leaders once gathered to make decisions. The Peach State is now known most as the state trying to maintain economic development by filching water from its neighbors.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail him at shipp1@bellsouth.net, or visit him on the Web at billshipponline.com.