Why States Push and Shove To Host First '96 Primary

EVERY four years, states play a game of leap-frog, hoping to jump ahead of New Hampshire to host the nation's first presidential primary.

This year, Arizona Gov. Fife Symington (R) gave the Granite State what may have been its strongest competition yet. He sent out a flurry of faxes, phone calls, and chest-beating memos - mainly to the New Hampshire governor's office - promising that Arizona was going to be first on the calendar this time around.

Last week, however, Mr. Symington conceded defeat and agreed to hold his state's primary a week after New Hampshire's, which is set for Feb. 20, 1996. Now he faces a fight from other states just to retain second place.

Why all the fuss? Part of the reason is that candidacies are increasingly made, like Bill Clinton's in 1992, or crushed, like Bob Dole's in 1988, in the first few primaries. And small or less-populated states look with envy at the attention, influence, and money that comes with hosting an early primary.

``Since the early 1970s, there's been a process of front-loading,'' says University of Arizona political scientist Lyn Ragsdale.

Symington officials say the burgeoning West needs a greater voice.

``The Northeast has New Hampshire, the Midwest has Iowa, and the South has Super Tuesday,'' says Symington aide Doug Cole. ``Now that the population is moving West, the West needs to have a bigger say in the political process.''

WHEN the Arizona Legislature passed a law two years ago authorizing a primary on the same day as New Hampshire's, no one anticipated the fight the Granite State would wage to keep its status.

But Arizona's hopes were dimmed when House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and potential presidential contenders threw their support behind Gov. Steve Merrill (R) of New Hampshire. The dispute was finally resolved Friday before the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, with presidential candidate Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas acting as mediator. Symington agreed to schedule his state's primary for Feb. 27.

But with other states also moving their primary dates up, the Democratic National Committee passed a rule forbidding primaries before March 5. Only New Hampshire, Maine, and the Iowa caucuses are exempt.

``It's extremely unlikely that the Democratic National Committee would start granting exemptions to states wanting to move up before the window,'' says Rick Boylan, director of party affairs and delegate selection for the DNC. That means Arizona and Delaware, both of which want to hold their primaries earlier, face either DNC sanctions or a refusal to participate by Democrats.

``If that happens, we'll just hold it without them,'' Symington says. Some Arizona GOP leaders disagree with the governor, however, saying that if the national party refuses to recognize the results, Arizona risks having its Democratic primary reduced to a meaningless ``beauty contest.'' Like Vermont in 1984, which also tried to buck party rules, Arizona could end up holding two primaries, and paying for both.

A number of states - Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and possibly Maine, according to the DNC - are already planning to hold primaries on March 5. Arizona and Delaware are still in flux, but if they join the other states on ``Junior Tuesday,'' the advantage of going second would be diluted. Symington vows not to let that happen.

Arizona's main obstacle to an early primary may be the Justice Department. Arizona is one of 13 states that, because of a history of discriminating against minority voters, require federal approval for election dates. A February primary date might unfairly disadvantage American Indian voters on reservations in the northern part of the state, where bad weather could keep them from reaching the polls. Still, a Justice Department official says the problem is not insurmountable, as long as Arizona makes provisions for people in those areas to vote absentee.

Why is Symington going to all this trouble? Some theorists say there's more at stake for him than increasing Arizona's political clout; it's also a chance for him to step into the national spotlight. Speculates political scientist Ragsdale: ``Symington wants to be Gramm's running mate.''

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