THE 10 Republican presidential candidates hold their first debate tonight in the Ronald Reagan Library in Southern California.

This is on the heels of last week's first Democratic debate in which eight candidates met at South Carolina University.

The common thread is that both states are expected to be major players in selecting party nominees next year.

Pennsylvania? Not so much.

The sixth-largest state once again looks likely to be on the sidelines. Pennsylvania, the spectator state. Same old story.

In fact, by the time our scheduled April 22, 2008, primary arrives, as many as 36 other states will have held primaries or caucuses.

Is it possible Pennsylvania still is a player? Anything's possible.

Is it likely? No.

The Keystone State hasn't had a meaningful say in picking nominees since helping Jimmy Carter in 1976, and a front-end-loaded '08 season suggests continued impotence.

This despite Gov. Rendell's 2005 Election Reform Task Force recommending that the '08 primary be moved to March 4, and Rendell this year urging Feb. 5 with a bunch of other states, including New York and New Jersey, for a so-called Super-Duper Tuesday.

So far nine states settled on that date; another 12 are expected to soon.

Why not Pennsylvania?

Pick your whine: School districts now require voter approval for certain local tax increases and wouldn't have time to do budgets; candidates for state office would have to circulate petitions starting Election Day '07, too much work too soon; older voters, an important bloc to incumbents, won't turn out in winter weather; we might have a snowstorm, and you know how we do with snowstorms; and on and on.

Also, state election officials say the Legislature has to act by the end of June to allow enough time for an early primary to happen, because (I imagine) nothing happens quickly in government. And lawmakers say there's too much else to do, including pass a state budget, in the same time frame, because, well, you know how lawmakers are.

Oh, and there's almost no support for a presidential-only primary on grounds that a statewide election costs counties at least $18 million combined, and counties, like every level of government in Pennsylvania, have no money for things they don't want to do.

One wonders how so many other states manage.

Rep. Ron Buxton, D-Harrisburg, introduced a bill in January to move the primary to March 4. There's even a House State Government Committee hearing scheduled on it May 24. But he's not optimistic.

"If it's not passed by June, it's not going to happen," Buxton says.

Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, chairs the committee and likes the idea: "It seems to me if we had a more meaningful primary, we'd have more people new to politics get involved and stay involved."

Good point.

But asked about the prospects, Josephs says, "The odds are against it."

State party people are split.

Mary Eisenhower, Pennsylvania Democratic Party director, says Feb. 5 is where we ought to be, even if many other states are, too: "Pennsylvania's a big state. If someone wins Pennsylvania, it makes a big statement."

But Luke Bernstein, GOP state committee chief, says, "The support is just not there on the Republican side." He cites several of the reasons mentioned above.

Democrats control the House, Republicans the Senate. You do the math.

This is further evidence that Pennsylvania's a place that good ideas go to die, the home of anti-progress.

Next, I expect, the governor blames the Legislature's failure to act and the Legislature blames the governor's failure to push his proposal.

Meanwhile, major party voters here get to watch national debates without a say in who competes to next lead the nation. *

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