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Reconsidering the Primary Calendar

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- I've just spent the last 45 minutes scraping more than a quarter inch of ice off of my rental car, which is parked outside a hotel in West Des Moines. Campaign '08 is officially in the deep freeze.

A few hours ago they closed the airport in Des Moines. A spokesman told one of the local television stations that he had been working at the airport for four years and it was only the second time he knew of it being closed. The first time, he said, was last week.

Two days ago, I was sitting on the 50 yard-line of the Williams-Brice football stadium at the University of South Carolina in shirtsleeves, waiting for the arrival of Barack and Michelle Obama and their new best friend, Oprah Winfrey.

Today I look out over I-80 in deteriorating conditions, the freezing rain now giving way to what the forecasters say could be several inches of snow. Traffic appears light on what is a main thoroughfare through the Midwest.

Where would you rather be?

The smart candidates aren't anywhere near Iowa today. Hillary Clinton is in California raising money and holding what her campaign billed as a conversation with billionaire Warren Buffet. Barack Obama is in Seattle for an evening rally.

They and others had expected to be debating in Los Angeles on Monday night until the forum was canceled because none of the candidates wanted to cross the picket line for the writers' strike. Lucky for Clinton and Obama that they didn't bail out on the entire West Coast trip.

Those unlucky enough to be in Iowa have had their schedules severely disrupted. John Edwards scrubbed the first stop of the day on his bus tour, but vowed to show up at events later today at cities along the Mississippi River. Mike Huckabee and surrogates Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama have canceled events in Iowa or otherwise adjusted their plans.

Frigid weather and blinding snow are part of the Iowa and New Hampshire political tradition. In 1988, a huge blizzard hit New Hampshire a few days before the primary, bringing campaigning to a halt. The lone beneficiary was Bob Dole. His endorsement press conference with Alexander Haig drew almost 300 bored members of the media who were trapped in Manchester.

Iowa is better known for bone-chilling temperatures and wind-chills well below zero. In 1996 a cold-spell settled in over Iowa with actual temperatures below zero for days. My colleague Roger Simon of politico.com recalls that one weather reporter tossed a glass of water into the air and it came down as snowflakes -- though he concedes that may just be campaign lore.

Perhaps it's time to rethink the entire nomination calendar with an eye toward the weather. There are lots of proposals kicking around to repair this broken system, none clearly better than any other. Why not let the weather dictate?

That would mean starting in New Hampshire during leaf season the year before the general election. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner had threatened to push the primary into December of this year. Why not just leapfrog everyone and set it in early October of 2011? What better time to spend in New England?

Given my experience on Sunday, I'm now partial to South Carolina having a winter contest. Currently that state's primaries will be on Jan. 19 (Republicans) and Jan. 26 (Democrats). But if New Hampshire goes into the year before, South Carolina should do the same -- sometime in early December.

Nevada will hold the third Democratic event of this campaign, with caucuses on Jan. 19. No one knows whether there will be many people turning out for those caucuses, since the state has no tradition of real participation. But next time around, why not schedule the Nevada caucuses for New Year's Eve?

Reporters, who have generally avoided Nevada this year, would flock to Las Vegas for the chance to party on the Strip while live-blogging the results. Even if no one votes, it will be a rich story.

Florida has tried to muscle its way forward this year, to the chagrin of the Democratic National Committee. Rather than penalize them, why not reward their aggressiveness with a mid-January primary in 2012? Michigan, however, deserves no such reward. Should anyone be forced to go to there in January or February? Push Michigan back to where it used to be -- in the early spring.

California, the Golden State know for its beautiful weather, can go any time -- except during times of mudslides, wildfires or earthquakes. Which, of course, means there is never an ideal time. So no California primary. Ever.

That still leaves Iowa in a quandary. Normally the state's caucuses start the process and historically they've been held eight days before New Hampshire -- though it will be just five days this year. But if we're readjusting the calendar so completely, I'd propose that Iowa's first-in-the-nation event be held around the time of the Iowa State Fair.

Republicans long have held a straw poll in August the year before the presidential election. Why not sanctify the state fair's central place in American life by scheduling the caucuses around this orgy of pork on a stick and deep-fried indulgences? If the caucuses were held at the state fair, maybe even more people would turn out to vote. It would beat the ice and snow of a January night.

Maybe this isn't perfect. Maybe there are flaws in this climate-controlled nomination schedule. If you have a better idea, send it along. We have nothing but space for your comments. And maybe the barons in Congress and the national party committees who are trying to build a better mousetrap will get some inspiration.

By the way, the weather looks a little brighter outside. Maybe it's not so bad here after all.

--Dan Balz

By Web Politics Editor  |  December 11, 2007; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , B_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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