States race to set earlier primaries

California is poised to play the first card in what experts say will be a national game of "reschedule your state's primary." The stakes: which state can gain significant influence over the presidential nominating process.

California's bid to move its 2008 primary from June to Feb. 5 – already approved by the state Senate and expected to clear the Assembly this week – is intended to force presidential candidates to stump in the Golden State, addressing issues dear to voters here before the contest is all but decided by others. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has said he will sign the bill.

But already, nine states have tentatively scheduled primaries or caucuses for Feb. 5, and more may pile on as states jockey to meet notification deadlines: May for Democrats, September for Republicans. Among the delegate-rich states considering that date: Illinois, New Jersey, and Texas. Florida has a bill pending that would leapfrog them by moving its primary to Jan. 29.

The irony in all the jockeying is that, with so much change afoot, no state may achieve its aim, analysts say. The probable outcome of a front-loaded primary schedule is an early winnowing of the candidate field, with Feb. 5 becoming a do-or-die date, and a clipped-back period of time in which voters can assess presidential hopefuls at town halls and in their living rooms.

"California and other states that are trying to play calendar games are apt to find out that their plans backfire," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "We are courting disaster."

Feb. 5 could become a de facto national primary, political analysts say, because candidates who underperform in that vote would have trouble attracting donations that allow them to continue campaigning. And the party nominations could easily be sewn up in the three weeks between the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 14 and the Feb. 5 sweepstakes – giving the public insufficient time to watch and test the candidates, they say.

"With that many states front-loading their primary dates, the presidential campaign may get closure sooner, but people in each party may end up regretting the choice," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. He cites the meteoric rise in 2004 of Howard Dean, the early Democratic front-runner, who later flamed out when voters watched him more closely over months of campaigning.

"They may find out things about the anointed nominees that they don't like, but find them out too late," says Dr. Pitney.

If states such as Florida, Michigan, and Illinois follow California's lead, he and others say, presidential nominations for both parties could be sewn up 10 months before the general election in November.

"We are about to have the most extended presidential campaign in American history, and that is the last thing the public wants," says Mr. Sabato.

These assessments do not cancel out the rationale for California and other states that want more clout in who picks presidential nominees, analysts say.

"A Feb. 5 primary for California means California issues are finally going to be addressed by the candidates, rather than just farm or New England issues," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. "It means California voters – not just California donors like big Hollywood celebrities – [would] have a bigger say in the presidential primary."

If candidates are forced to consider California voters, concerns such as offshore oil drilling, illegal immigration, national security, and the environment might move up the issue agenda of candidates, say Mr. Stern and others.

Campaign styles and strategies may also be affected if more states move their primaries to Feb. 5. Campaigns in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have been characterized by up-close-and-personal meetings in coffee shops, meeting halls, and restaurants. If states with big populations and large terrain – like California – are added to the early-primary mix, candidates will no doubt adjust their money-raising and money-spending strategies.

"You won't see Hillary [Rodham] Clinton coming out to shake hands with voters in a small restaurant in L.A.," says Stern. "The state is simply too big. She'll need to spend her money more on television ads, radio, organizing staffs and logistics."

A candidate would also need more money earlier, to even consider a presidential race. That would represent a big change, some say. The day would be over when a candidate could plan to build a viable candidacy by attracting enough voters in a small state, and hope momentum and funds snowball from there.

The only way to end the primary chaos is to pass a constitutional amendment that would create a more uniform primary voting structure, says Sabato. One idea, he says, is to create four regional primaries – one each in April, May, June, and July, with national party conventions in August. The order of the regional primary votes would change with each presidential election cycle, decided by lottery Jan. 1.

"This would kill the permanent campaign because no [candidate] would know where to start and would eliminate the slingshot effect of winning just a couple of early primaries and vaulting to national prominence," says Sabato. "It makes so much sense it will never happen."

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