States scramble to become primary players


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The 2008 presidential race will be shaped, in unpredictable ways, by a parallel competition among states leapfrogging one another in pursuit of a greater voice in the nominating process.

The maneuvering threatens the traditional roles of Iowa and New Hampshire as gatekeepers of the White House competition. It has the potential to change the dynamics of the battle among the candidates and significantly alter its terrain of issues.

Measures now poised for consideration in legislatures across the country would mean that voters in some of the largest states would be able to cast primary ballots before the first Iowan enters a precinct caucus.

The currently anticipated nominating schedule puts the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 14, and the New Hampshire contest eight days later on Jan 22. But the competition elsewhere raises doubt about that schedule.

New Hampshire officials, jealous guardians of their state’s nominating tradition, are considering moving their primary to an earlier date, a move that would have a ripple effect among other states.

The Democratic National Committee has issued a nominating schedule suggesting the Jan. 14 and Jan. 22 dates for the Iowa and New Hampshire events, along with a caucus in Nevada on Jan. 19. But state law empowers William M. Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state, to choose a primary date on his own. In an interview last week, he made clear that he does not feel bound by the DNC edict.

Gardner declined to say when he would officially choose a date, although he noted that in past election cycles he has delayed making a decision until as late as December.

While accepting the earlier timing of the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire law directs Gardner to set the date at least seven days before any other state’s primary or similar nominating event. Gardner declined to comment on whether the new Nevada caucus would trigger a change in the New Hampshire date, but he said that he anticipated that some other state’s action might force New Hampshire’s hand.

“Almost every four years there has been an attempt in one way or another,” he said, while pledging to frustrate similar moves next year.

Florida’s legislature is about to consider a bill that would set its primary for the first Tuesday in February or seven days after the New Hampshire primary — whichever comes earlier.

State Rep. David Rivera, who is a chief proponent of the bill, predicts that it will pass overwhelmingly within the next two months.

“Florida, I think, is an easy sell to the candidates because they all come here to raise money,” he said. “If they are going to be coming to Florida anyway to use Florida like a presidential-campaign ATM, then certainly they shouldn’t mind speaking about the issues we care about.”

Next year, under the current schedule, the bill would put the Sunshine State primary on Jan. 29, which would not automatically force a move by New Hampshire. But the Florida plan doesn’t sit well with the South Carolina Republican Party, which is determined that its primary be the first in the South. It is a party-run rather than state-run process, and the GOP chairman has the flexibility to set or move its date. A spokesman for the state party said last week that the chairman anticipates making the scheduling decision in September.

To make good on its pledge of being first in the South, the Palmetto State GOP would have to move ahead of Florida, meaning that its date could be seen as a trigger to the New Hampshire requirement that its primary take place seven days before any other.

Something has to give. The dictates of the two state laws and the South Carolina vow can’t all be reconciled. A move by New Hampshire would trigger a move by Florida, which would in turn prompt a move by the South Carolina Republicans.

No presidential election cycle has seen so many candidates declare so early. Former President Bill Clinton, elected in 1992, didn’t formally announce his candidacy until the late fall of 1991. This time around, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack declared his candidacy almost a year earlier than that and nearly two years before the 2008 election. Whatever happens with the early state maneuvering, it already seems clear that more voters will be casting presidential primary votes earlier than ever before.

While the anticipated date of Florida’s primary is a week after the tentative New Hampshire date, Florida allows two weeks of early voting, meaning that thousand of Florida votes would be cast before the Granite State polls open.

The California Assembly, meanwhile, is expected to join a growing list of states that have or are planning to hold their primaries on Feb. 5. They include Michigan, Illinois and New Jersey. California has an even more liberal early, or absentee, voting process than Florida, along with an established culture of early voting. Ballots are made available 29 days before the election, meaning that Californians could be casting their presidential votes well before the Iowa caucuses. In addition, overseas and military ballots are sent out 60 days before the election — in this case, that is well before Christmas.

Richard Stapler, press secretary to California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, said that in the last statewide election, 41 percent of the state’s ballots were cast through some form of early voting.

How these logistical shifts will affect the substance of the campaign is a subject of heated debate.

“It’s a serious problem; it’s a significant deterioration of a process that wasn’t good to begin with,” said William Francis Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of state and co-chairman of the National Association of Secretaries of State. The group has long recommend a system of rotating regional primaries designed to extend the nominating season through the spring. Instead, he said, both parties’ presidential nominees are likely to be clear after the Feb. 5 voting.

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette politics editor James O’Toole can be reached at jotoole(at)