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Semantic Gymnastics: GOP In Tug Of War Over Delegate Rule

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus opens last year's convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 27.
Glen Stubbe
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus opens last year's convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 27.

Remember back when President Bill Clinton argued that his truthfulness about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky depended on the meaning of the word "is"?

Thought so.

Though the topic may be decidedly less salacious, the Republican Party is embroiled in its own semantics gymnastics this week as its national committee members gather in Boston for their summer meeting.

The imbroglio playing out Thursday is over the swap of the word "may" for the word "shall" — and how that little change in a party rule could affect the 2016 presidential prospects of potential out-of-the-GOP-mainstream candidates.

Like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, to name just two.

"It's a very bad situation," says Morton Blackwell, a member of the Republican National Committee since 1988 and an expert on the party's rules.

And it's further evidence, he argues, of attempts to consolidate party power in Washington and bleed it from the grass roots.

Here's what has Blackwell, and many Tea Party and libertarian conservative leaders, up in arms:

At the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa, nominee Mitt Romney's team pushed through a rules change intended to clear his path to renomination in 2016, if he had been elected. It was accomplished, in part, by changing a word in the rule governing how delegates are awarded. And it specifically applies to states that hold their presidential primaries or caucuses before April 1, when winner-take-all presidential primaries begin.

The old language required that contests held before April "shall" allocate delegates proportionally to candidates. The Romney team, through a disputed convention floor vote, changed it to read that delegates "may" be allocated proportionally.

That simple word change gives the party's eventual nominee the ability to choose alternatives to convention delegates who have been allocated by state voters to other candidates.

And it lessens the penalty for states that schedule their primary contests earlier than the party would prefer, in the hopes of luring candidate and media attention. Instead of being required to parcel out its delegates proportionally, which gives the state less clout, that state could — or "may" — have winner-take-all swagger come convention time.

Blackwell argues the Romney-driven change would give wealthy, moderate, "celebrity" candidates an inordinate early advantage and could lead to the equivalent of an early national primary.

"Let's say we had one pretty moderate candidate, who was a darling of the liberal media, and five conservative candidates all running," Blackwell says. "The nonconservative candidate could potentially win all the delegates from every early state where that candidate had a plurality."

Dean Clancy of FreedomWorks, a grass-roots training organization closely allied with the Tea Party movement, characterized the rules battle as "part of the larger struggle between the establishment and the grass-roots, or populist, factions in the party."

"We saw the insiders working overtime to shut out the Ron Paul supporters in 2012 — next time it might be Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or someone else who has a lot of grass-roots support," he said. "It's very much a power struggle that flows from differing views of what the purpose and goals of the Republican Party should be."

In some ways, the battle is an old one, and between longtime GOP adversaries: Blackwell — who is leading the charge to change the word back to "shall" — and Republican superlawyer Ben Ginsberg, who engineered the 2012 rules change on Romney's behalf.

"We are on different sides of an important issue," Blackwell says. Ginsberg has declined to comment — he told The Washington Times, "I have nothing to say off the record and therefore you have nothing from me on the record."

But supporters of the word change argue that the controversy is overhyped. And, indeed, Josh Putnam, one of the nation's foremost experts on presidential nominating contests and delegate allocation, agrees — to a point.

States in 2008 and 2012 showed they had moved away from an earlier mindset of moving to the front of the presidential contest calendar, says Putnam, now at Davidson College.

"To the extent that this would re-trigger a race to the front and could open the door to that national primary?" Putnam says. "I think states have moved past that mindset."

Putnam adds that changing the wording back to the definitive "shall" rather than "may" is very likely in the works.

"I fully expect it to be changed because there is support for that in both supposed wings of this discussion, the grass roots and the establishment," he says.

Still, on Thursday, the RNC rules committee voted 40-10 to defer action on an amendment Blackwell had submitted to return the rule to its original wording, said Maine committeewoman Ashley Ryan. Now the "may/shall" question will go to a newly appointed subcommittee that will review all primary process rules. (A subcommittee that doesn't include Blackwell.)

So the wordplay — and forecasts of its potential fallout — will continue to provide plenty of fodder for an ongoing intraparty squabble.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.