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This Contest's A Beauty

The contestants in these beauty contests don't wear sashes or tiaras, and there's nothing even close to a swimsuit competition. The prizes don't carry any glamour, just a little momentum for the competitors - if they're lucky.

In the world of politics, beauty contests are presidential primaries or straw polls that allow voters to express their opinions but have nothing to do with the delegate selection process. A political beauty pageant in Delaware this weekend is an example.

The state's Democratic Party is having a primary Saturday but won't actually allocate its 22 delegates until March 27 caucuses held throughout the state. Some state party officials say that coming on the heels of the New Hampshire primary, Delaware may have more bearing on the nomination than people think.

Or it may not.

"There's really been no history that beauty contests and straw polls have been president makers," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University.

States holding presidential primaries or straw polls that have no bearing on the allocation of delegates to the party's national convention include:
  • ALASKA: Republicans held a straw poll Jan. 24. George W. Bush netted 1,571 votes, or 36.3 percent, while Steve Forbes received 1,566 votes, or 36.2 percent. Delegates will be allocated at party caucuses in May.
  • DELAWARE: Democrats hold a presidential primary Feb. 5. Actual delegates will be allocated based on results from March 27 caucuses.
  • WASHINGTON: Democrats hold a presidential primary Feb. 29. Delegates will be allocated a week later based on party caucuses.
  • ARIZONA and MICHIGAN: Republican parties in both states hold state-run primaries Feb. 22. Democrats, however, are not allowed to participate because of national party rules and will instead hold separate contests on March 11.
  • Beauty contest participants are usually second-tier candidates hoping to gain a little publicity to boost a sagging campaign.

    Republican Steve Forbes, trailing far behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush, nearly tied the front-runner in an Alaska Republican presidential straw poll last week. The millionaire publisher made several campaign trips to Alaska prior to the nonbinding contest, while Bush and rival Sen. John McCain did not show up.

    Curt Achberger, executive director of Alaska's Republican Party, said the state holds the straw poll to grab attention it wouldn't receive otherwise. "Alaska gets forgotten a lot," he said.

    Front-runners generally tend to ignore beauty contests, since they have nothing to gain in the way of delegates, said Barbara Norrander, a political science professor at the University of Arizona. Lesser-known candidates, however, often participate because it's an eas way to get name recognition without having to compete against major candidates with deeper pockets.

    Beauty contest primaries aren't as common as they used to be, Norrander said.

    "It may be they're still out there but there hasn't been as much attention to them because there are so many primaries squished together so fast," she said.

    Because of a front-loaded election calendar this year, a nominee for both parties should be known by the end of March. Last year's scramble for earlier dates - and increased influence - on the 2000 calendar resulted in a number of beauty contests.

    Washington state Democrats, for example, have scheduled a beauty contest primary for Feb. 29, but won't allocate their delegates until a week later.

    In Arizona and Michigan, taxpayers will pay for a Feb. 22 presidential primary in which only Republicans can participate. State Democrats will hold party-run contests the following month because of a national rule that allows only Iowa and New Hampshire to hold caucuses or primaries before March 7 without penalty.

    "There's no question that having a caucus run by the state party is going to cost us some money," said Dennis Denno, a spokesman for Michigan Democrats. "But we're trying to make sure that, in the end, it's a better product."

    Norrander wondered how Bill Bradley would try to gain momentum in the runup to the March 7 contests after his loss Tuesday in New Hampshire's Democratic primary.

    "He might end up looking around for a beauty contest," she said.

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