A Regional Primary System?
Following last week's launch of the Fast Track Campaign special, Capitol Briefing caught up with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) at the end of last week to get a better sense of his plan to introduce legislation that would re-craft the presidential primary season.
Alexander, a two-time candidate for the GOP nomination for the White House, said he wants to nail down legislation with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) before the July 4th recess or shortly thereafter. In the most optimistic view, Alexander said, "Hopefully that means next week."
Alexander and Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee whose 2004 presidential bid didn't last past the New Hampshire primary, are upset to see the dramatically front-loaded primary and caucus schedule, which could come very close to determining the two nominees by Feb. 5.
The latest examples of this effect can be found in the schedule of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who, according to washingtonpost.com's campaign tracker, is doing seven fundraisers today and tomorrow in Florida. In addition, his aides announced today that the senator will also do two public events in the state, whose primary is now slated for Jan. 29 -- meaning continued media exposure is almost as important as the dollars he raises there. And Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is exiting the fund-raising circuit Saturday afternoon for a public address in Hartford, home to Connecticut's Feb. 5 primary.
Alexander said the model for federal legislation is based on a 1999 bill that Lieberman co-wrote that would have created a regional primary system. That bill would have created a system of four rotating regions, with a cluster of 13 mid-Atlantic and Northeast states voting on the first Tuesday of March, with a southern group of states going the first Tuesday of April, a Midwest group the first Tuesday of May and a Mountain West and far West group going last, the first Tuesday of June.
The next election, the order would be rotated so that no region would always go first. That bill, which was referred to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, went nowhere legislatively speaking. And it's unclear if its prospects would be any better in a Democratically controlled Congress. It's also certain that nothing done by Alexander and Lieberman could be accomplished in time to alter the 2008 fast-track campaign, but possibly elections in the future.
Lieberman's office said the senator was still speaking with Alexander about the details of his proposals. "We're looking at Senator Alexander's ideas before we make any final decisions," an aide said.
But Alexander added that he also wants to add some form of campaign finance legislation into the bill. Restricting campaign finances has largely been anathema among conservatives, so it will be interesting to see what Alexander proposes. For now, he's declining to spell out what sort of new rules would apply, but he bemoaned the fact that former governors such as Tommy Thompson (Wisc.) and Mike Huckabee (Ark.) were struggling because of their poor financial standing.
"The campaign finance problems make it hard for these candidates to get on stage," he said.
And Alexander expressed little concern about the constitutionality of imposing a federal timeline on a primary campaign schedule that has otherwise been left up to individual states to determine, with some oversight from national party committees.
"It's the election of the president, Congress has a role," he said.
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