DES MOINES — HOW voters nominate candidates for the White House has been one of the longest-running dramas in US history.
The system devised by the Founding Fathers, itself greatly debated, survived only two elections. The nominating process has since undergone revisions in every decade.
This year, the changes are dramatic. Eager to exercise greater influence in the selection of candidates, more than a dozen states have moved their primaries or caucuses up. Some, such as the New England states, have banded together to produce regional primaries.
As a result, the vast majority of delegates to the nominating conventions will be chosen in a frenetic five-week period from Feb 12, the Iowa caucuses, to March 26, the California primary. Ironically, the shortest primary season in history has already produced the longest campaign.
The compacted primary season has increased the importance of money and the media. Candidates have to stump in more states simultaneously, making them more dependent on TV ads to convey their messages. The schedule has also forced earlier and more expensive advertising. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander started running television ads in June. Media mogul Steve Forbes has reportedly spent more than $10 million - most of it on TV and radio ads - since late September. The need to spend early has had a winnowing effect even before votes are cast. Sen. Arlen Specter has already withdrawn; other campaigns are sputtering.
In the end, however, the front-loaded schedule may do little to offset the influence of early birds Iowa and New Hampshire. And once the process starts, primaries will come with such speed that candidates will have almost no time to connect directly with voters.
Another facet of the new primary season is the "black hole," the period from April, when major-party nominees will be known, to August, when they will be formally chosen at conventions. This gap provides ample time for third parties or independents to develop.
"It'll be bam, wham, no national discussion," says Michael Goldstein, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "That leaves a large window for public dissatisfaction."
With this in mind, here are a few things to watch for when the GOP voting begins:
*Louisiana warm up: If the Department of Justice rules no foul, the Pelican State will precede Iowa with caucuses on Feb. 6. This race won't carry the impact Iowa does, but it will be an important battle ground for Sen. Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan, and former Ambassador Alan Keyes, all battling over the conservative vote - the key to challenging Sen. Bob Dole. Since Mr. Gramm has boasted of his strength here, less than a decisive victory could give Mr. Buchanan an edge.
* Race for second place: Barring a major upset, Dole will win Iowa. But there are two questions: Can he hold on to the 37 percent he won in 1988? And will Gramm or Mr. Forbes take a confident second? Dole must prove his strength early, his rivals argue, or the swift schedule may work against him.
*Granite State strainer: By Feb. 20, the race is likely to be down to Dole, Gramm, Forbes, and Buchanan. Forbes has the money. A second or third place would keep Buchanan alive. Gramm's trump is to come.
*Western gun fight: Dole and Forbes are running neck and neck in Arizona. If Forbes wins, Dole is in trouble.
*Gramm's last stand: Charlie Black, the senator's campaign director, says Gramm must win South Carolina on March 2. The Texas lawmaker is counting on the South.
*Chowdah time: Junior Tuesday may offer enticing indicators. The remaining five New England states are up for grabs. Colorado and Washington are also undecided.
*Super Tuesday: Formulated in 1988 to give the region a bigger punch, this Southern primary may have been robbed of its glory. If Gramm survives South Carolina, he has the home-field advantage.
*Big 10 preview: No presidential nominee will be able to win the general election without winning such states as Ohio, Michigan, or Illinois on March 19.
*A stadium's worth: If, by the slimmest of prospects, the GOP race for the nomination is still alive, there should be no doubt after California's winner-take-all primary. With 163 delegates, it will end the contest.