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At the Breaking Point?

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson set a chain reaction in motion Thursday morning. (Reuters).

South Carolina Republican chairman Katon Dawson won his moment in the political limelight today by shifting his state's GOP primary to Jan. 19, 2008. But in doing so, he may have put the entire tradition of the presidential nominating system at risk.

South Carolina's move is almost certain to trigger other changes in the calendar. The issue is how much the current system can be bent and stretched and warped before it finally breaks apart.

That is what elected officials and state party leaders in states like New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, Florida and South Carolina should be thinking about as they contemplate how to react to Dawson's announcement today.

Tradition, self-interest and pure envy have shaped the 2008 calendar and they ultimately could be the system's undoing. At some point there is likely to be rebellion against a process that forces voters to begin picking presidential nominees 10 months or more before the general election.

Can any state official truly justify asking voters to think seriously about presidential politics in the calendar year before the presidential election -- and in the middle of the holiday season to boot? That now appears distinctly possible if New Hampshire feels crowded by South Carolina and moves to early January and Iowa feels crowded by New Hampshire and moves into December.

All of these moves seem logical to those who make the decisions. After all, they are only preserving tradition. Iowa reserves the right to schedule the first presidential caucuses. New Hampshire state law requires that the Granite State hold the first primary in the nation. And for many years, that tradition has served the process well.

Those two states, however much they do not mirror the demographics of the entire country, have earned their position at the front of the calendar over the years because of their active and engaged electorates.

Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire show up at events, grill the candidates and force them to answer questions they often might wish to avoid. Few candidates emerge from those states without being changed by the give-and-take, by the personal stories they hear, by what they learn about how presidential decisions affect individual lives.

In most other states, candidates campaign from 35,000 feet. They rarely have to spend much time talking to voters. They run lots of television ads, hold brief press conferences on airport tarmacs or meet with wealthy contributors. In Iowa and New Hampshire, voters put them through their paces.

The early states also have disproportionate influence on the nomination process and want to hold on to it. Iowa winnows the field. New Hampshire picks the finalists. South Carolina often has staged the decisive primary in the Republican nomination battle -- as it did eight years ago when George W. Bush rebounded from his loss to John McCain in New Hampshire and won what turned out to be the crucial battle of the 2000 primaries.

None of the states want to lose their influence. Dawson's announcement Thursday came after he had been told by other South Carolina Republicans that he had to do everything possible to preserve the Palmetto State's position as the state with the first southern primary in the nation. That position was threatened when Florida moved its primary to Jan. 29.

Other states are legitimately envious of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and have moved their contests ever earlier to give themselves a larger voice in picking the two nominees. This year's Feb. 5 megaprimary day will be the biggest ever in terms of delegates at stake on a single day -- with the possibility that both parties will effectively select their nominees nine months before Election Day.

The system already was in stress. Now Dawson's move has put everyone else in an even more difficult position. Had he selected Jan. 22, rather than Jan. 19, for the GOP primary, he might have given officials in New Hampshire and Iowa more flexibility to keep the nominating process within calendar year 2008.

A sequence starting with Iowa on Jan. 7, followed by New Hampshire on Jan. 15, followed by South Carolina on Jan. 22, while hardly ideal, would preserve some order and spacing to the early contests. That may be less possible, given Dawson's decision.

My discussions over the past few months with political leaders in the early states suggests there is great reluctance to force the opening event of the 2008 nominating process into December 2007. There is every possibility for a public backlash -- if not in the individual states, then collectively -- with a conclusion that the whole system has broken down.

The Democratic National Committee sought to change the system, by officially sanctioning the placement of South Carolina and Nevada at the front of the calendar along with Iowa and New Hampshire, and by threatening to sanction states like Florida, which have violated the rules covering everyone else. If DNC officials sanction Florida's early primary, they will also have to sanction New Hampshire and Iowa if they move their dates.

South Carolina Democratic chairman Carol Fowler said today she is reluctant to move her party's primary, now scheduled for Jan. 29, simply because the Republicans have moved theirs. But there is no question that if New Hampshire and Iowa move -- and possibly Michigan as well, Fowler will be under pressure to follow suit.

The person with the power now is New Hampshire secretary of state Bill Gardner, who has the authority to set the date for the primary there. If Iowa officials were smart, they would move quickly to reset the date of their caucuses -- and fix it in early 2008, not in 2007, forcing Gardner to react to them rather than the other way around. But Gardner, who said he does not want to force Iowa into 2007, is deeply worried about Michigan as a wildcard, and will take pains to make sure that state does not sabotage New Hampshire's position. Gardner said he would prefer to keep the primary on a Tuesday but noted that he now has the option of moving it to another day of the week, such as Saturday.

Iowa could fix its date for Jan. 4 -- still too early but at least not December -- and that would give New Hampshire the opportunity to set its primary for Jan. 12 -- a Saturday. That would preserve the tradition, which is vital from Gardner's perspective, of Iowa having the first caucuses, New Hampshire having the first primary and a full week before the next primary.

Failing that, these officials run the risk of setting off a bidding match that will be seen, rightly, as motivated by parochial interest, rather than the national interests. That would be a bad outcome for two states that have done so much in behalf of the nominating process over the years.

--Dan Balz

By Post Editor  |  August 9, 2007; 1:59 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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