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Clock Ticking on Primary Calendar Mess

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson at an August press conference announcing primary calendar changes. (Reuters).

DES MOINES -- When the long 2008 presidential campaign finally comes to a close, one of the most dismal episodes will have been the manipulation and game-playing over the nomination calendar. Three months before the kickoff of the campaign, the dates of the opening events still are not locked into place.

Political leaders continue their brinksmanship while campaigns complain about the uncertainty of trying to plan where and when to send their candidates or how to place television ads without knowing the number of days they may need to be on the air in any of the earliest states. Campaigns lobby behind the scenes for advantage.

Iowa and New Hampshire feel aggrieved by challenges from other states on their special role in the nominating process, but those two states also are testing the good will of campaigns and voters elsewhere by demanding and receiving so much time and resources from the candidates.

There may be some relief from all this on the horizon. Campaign and party officials say that, based on their private conversations and best intelligence, a consensus is building behind a calendar that would look like this: Iowa on Jan. 5, New Hampshire on Jan. 8, Nevada on Jan. 12 and South Carolina on Jan. 19.

It could take another month or so to settle what should have been resolved long ago. Whether that consensus calendar turns into reality depends to a great extent on the actions of two states who have become major antagonists this cycle--New Hampshire and Michigan--as well as on parochial jockeying between the parties in some of the other states.

The original calendar laid out by the Democratic National Committee preserved that tradition. It called for Iowa to hold it's caucuses on Jan. 14, followed by Nevada's caucuses on Jan. 19. That plan envisioned New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 22, followed a week later by South Carolina.

That preserved tradition and state laws, which put Iowa eight days before the New Hampshire primary, and New Hampshire at least seven days before the next contest of a similar nature.

Much has happened to blow up that plan. Florida moved its primary to Jan. 29, which prompted South Carolina Republicans to move to Jan. 19. Michigan set its contests for Jan. 15,. South Carolina Democrats are likely to request a waiver to move their primary to Jan. 19 or before, depending on what else happens.

Florida's move triggered sanctions by the DNC to deny the state seating at the national convention next year. That could be resolved in court. Other early states muscled the Democratic candidates into signing a pledge not to campaign in Florida or Michigan or any other state that breaks the DNC's rules as a way to diminish those contests.

Whatever the outcome of all this means a far different calendar than envisioned by national party officials when they began their planning for 2008, and one far different from any in past years. Leaving aside the implications of what comes after those events -- namely the biggest single primary day ever next Feb. 5--the sequence of events in January adds another element of unpredictability.

With the Iowa caucuses coming so soon after New Year's Day, which is when Iowa voters truly get serious about the race, there is less time for someone in the back of the pack to build up a head of steam, as John Kerry and John Edwards did four years ago.

With potentially just three days between Iowa and New Hampshire, no one knows what kind of impact the Iowa results will have on New Hampshire voters. Can the candidate who stumbles in Iowa recover in New Hampshire with so little time between events? Can a surprise winner in Iowa take advantage in New Hampshire with such a quick turnaround?

In the old calendar, newcomer Nevada was awarded a prized slot as the second state to hold an event, but appeared likely not to play a significant role because it was squeezed between Iowa and New Hampshire. If it comes four days after New Hampshire and a week before South Carolina, its influence could be somewhat greater than expected.

But nothing is settled and won't be at least until New Hampshire secretary of state Bill Gardner announces the date of the New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire politicians worry that Gardner, in his determination to preserve the state's first-in-the-nation tradition, will go too far in moving up the primary date, which they believe could trigger a backlash against the state.

Iowans worry that that Gardner could set the date even earlier than Jan. 8, putting pressure on them to hold the caucuses in December -- although Iowa Gov. Chet Culver has said he will resist any effort to move the caucuses into 2007. He and others fear the consequences of a 2007 start-date for the nominating contest would be disastrous for maintaining their special privilege in future campaigns.

Here in Iowa, there is also a difference of opinion between the parties about whether to schedule the caucuses on Saturday, Jan. 5, or Thursday, Jan. 3, and it's possible Republicans will go on one day and Democrats on the other.

Michigan's disdain for New Hampshire drives leaders in both states. Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin would like to end New Hampshire's special role and is pressing for federal legislation to change the entire nominating process.

Meanwhile, a number of Democratic candidates -- Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson among them -- are considering having their names removed from the Michigan ballot in January as a way to diminish a contest that, even if not sanctioned, could be a public relations victory for Hillary Clinton.

All of that leaves the calendar in a mess with the clock ticking.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  October 5, 2007; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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