Now we can have a say in things

The real winner in the New Hampshire primary may be a nominating process that was in danger of falling into disrepute as an unfair exercise in small-state politics that excluded the urban electorate. A win in rural Iowa and tiny New Hampshire seemed on the verge of having such outsized impact in choosing a president that grumbling about finding some new way of doing business had reached a crescendo.

In Florida and Michigan, political leaders challenged their national hierarchies and moved up their primaries in a dramatic effort to highlight the need for significant participation by big states. Both are now in danger of not having their delegates seated at the national conventions, a threat that is probably as hollow as a candidate’s promises given the importance of their delegations. Besides, for at least 40 years the quadrennial nominating conventions have been nothing more than pep rallies.

But with the Democratic voters of New Hampshire delivering a definite setback to the perceived Iowa-bred juggernaut of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama by giving the victory to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Republican voters rejuvenating the hopes of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the way is cleared for a much more representative nominating process. The race for each party’s endorsement remains wide open into the next round of primaries that will culminate Feb. 5 with “Super Tuesday,” when voters in over 20 states, including California and New York, will weigh in.

Extending the indecision won’t come cheaply, however, with all the candidates still viable facing new major advertising, travel and organizational expenses that will test their fund-raising abilities at a time when the economy is showing signs of stress. A friend with a history of minor political giving recently reported receiving at least four frantic calls for contributions and turning them all down, saying the drop in interest rates and other uncertainties had made her more cautious.

The Iowa/New Hampshire axis is a relatively new thing, having come about in 1976 when an obscure former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, found the cornfields of Iowa fertile ground for his peanut-farmer personality and parlayed it into a stunning victory that his opponents never could overcome. With the media’s help, that state’s improbable caucus approach became a key to the nomination. It never really made much sense, considering the nature of the voting and the size of the state. The same could be said for New Hampshire, another rural state.

Until that time, the primaries of states like Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon and California coming in orderly fashion throughout the winter and spring had played significant roles in the business of selecting nominees. But in recent years, by the time their voters got to the polls they were mostly irrelevant, leaving them with a feeling of disenfranchisement. This has led to more open talk about somehow making the conventions once again a meaningful part of the selection process by reserving a certain number of uncommitted votes for delegates chosen by state conventions.

With the races for both parties’ nominations now seemingly back in balance, that conversation could be expected to subside, although the fact that voters often pick far worse candidates than the kingmakers of the smoke-filled rooms will keep the debate alive. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower in the last century were products of the professional selection process. But then so was Warren Harding, an argument for the primary system or a combination of both.

At any rate, there will be little relief from the campaigning. But given the importance of the job, it is better that a broader number of voters have a voice in deciding who will represent them in the general election. That seems to be ensured now, and the spirited debate among the candidates over whatever differences they have will have a more complete airing. This is now basically an urban nation, and to have the major population centers cut out of the decision-making was never a good idea.

Between now and four years from now, there should be major reforms to restore some equity and perspective to the system.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)