MISSOULA - On the eve of an expected floor fight over national convention delegates between backers of John McCain and Ron Paul, Montana Republican Chairman Erik Iverson said Thursday that the GOP's philosophical diversity is good, but that delegates must unite afterward.
"I see Republicans of all stripes here, and that's a strength," Iverson said, pointing out Republicans with different philosophies in the crowd. "I don't see it as a weakness."
Speaking to the opening reception at the Montana Republican convention, Iverson told how Republicans want to win statewide elective offices and control the Montana House and Senate. Iverson predicted that state Sen. Roy Brown, R-Billings, would unseat Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the GOP would win at least three of the top statewide offices and majorities in both chambers of the Legislature
"The only way we can do it is if we work together," he said. "We came in many doors (to the convention). We're going to exit out one door as a united Republican Party that is focused on winning in the fall. It's time to get together and it's time to get to work."
On Friday, Montana Republicans will elect 22 delegates and 22 alternates to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Sept. 1-4.
In the binding Feb. 5 Montana caucus, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the winner-take-all event, with Paul, a Texas congressman, finishing second and McCain, the Arizona senator, placing third. Romney won
34 percent of the vote, while Paul had 25 percent, McCain had 22 percent, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had 15 percent and Alan Keyes had 1 percent. Romney dropped out of the race a few days after the Montana caucus.
In the nonbinding June 3 Montana Republican presidential primary, McCain won 76 percent of the vote, while Paul had 21 percent. Two percent of the voters had no preference. (The numbers don't add to 100 percent because of rounding.)
McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is not appearing at the Montana convention, but another McCain surrogate will speak Friday night.
Paul, who dropped out of the race earlier this month, will address the convention Friday night and is set to meet with his delegates to the convention before the polling begins to elect national convention delegates.
"We'll do our best to elect some Ron Paul people to go to national," said David Hart of Kalispell, his Montana coordinator. "We're here to play the game. It's not for Ron Paul. He's obviously not in the race anymore. It's for the principles he stands for."
Hart said he would sort through the delegate numbers Thursday night to help decide how many national convention delegate slots Paul's supporters will seek.
A national McCain campaign spokeswoman, Crystal Benton, declined to discuss convention strategy in terms of Montana delegates.
"Sen. McCain does enjoy strong support in the state of Montana," she said in a phone interview. "He's a Western senator and Western states like Montana appreciate an independent streak in their candidates and someone who will represent states' rights and represent these voters."