As States Shift Primary Dates, Presidential Nomination Is a Sprint

In wake of California's move to a March 7 primary in 2000, New Jersey and others also propose early primaries to keep clout.

It could be over with a bang.

Early in 2000, when the two major political parties get down to nominating presidential candidates, the winners may be selected sooner than ever. And the likelihood that a dark-horse candidate could emerge from the pack and win nomination, la Jimmy Carter in 1976, is now even more remote.

Big money, high name recognition, and a well-oiled political machine will be more important than ever.

Several key states are now planning to shift their primaries earlier in the process to enhance their clout. Last week, California moved its primary to the first Tuesday in March (March 7 in 2000), right on the heels of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. New Jersey's governor wants to do the same, and hopes more Eastern states do so, too.

Seven Rocky Mountain states are also talking about holding an early, joint primary, and representatives will meet in November to discuss it.

"The primaries are going to be over just after they've begun," says political analyst Stu Rothenberg. "It's going to increase the importance of New Hampshire and Iowa, because they'll be the jumping-off points for the one big day. That puts more of a premium on starting early, raising big money, and having an established name or political operations."

The advantage of the old, drawn-out primary system, which stretched from February to June, was that it allowed candidates to focus on a few states at a time, addressing their issues individually, analysts say. Now, after New Hampshire and Iowa, which remain sacrosanct as the earliest nominating states, California - the nation's most populous state - is likely to dominate the process.

In suddenly proposing a March 7 primary for New Jersey - a move Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) made just a day after California's new primary date was signed into law - the governor is hoping to draw some focus to the East Coast as well. Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland are already scheduled to vote on March 7, and Governor Whitman hopes Pennsylvania and Delaware will shift as well to that date, she said at a Monitor breakfast last week.

Whitman also hinted that early "bicoastal" primaries - focusing on states that lean toward favoring abortion rights - could mute the power of religious conservatives in the nomination of the Republican candidate. Such a tilt would benefit Whitman and California's Gov. Pete Wilson, both of whom are pro-choice and would otherwise have a tough time winning the GOP nomination.

But Republican strategist Eddie Mahe discounts that possibility. "Remember who votes in primaries," says Mr. Mahe. "It's the activists."

A move toward one big national primary would tend to benefit the Christian right and other organized groups, such as labor, which can provide a ready-made army of support for a candidate. Still, notes political scientist Jack Pitney, that would only be true if the activists can agree on whom they're supporting. For now, religious conservatives are divided among several candidates jockeying for the 2000 GOP nomination: Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, publisher Steve Forbes, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Another issue raised by a highly compressed primary schedule is access to media, and the expense of television ads. In recent elections, the electronic media have been paying less and less attention to campaigns, a trend that has pushed candidates toward more paid advertising. Candidates who elect to receive federal matching money must adhere to limits on spending, and it would be difficult to compete effectively in all the early-primary markets under those limits.

The superwealthy Steve Forbes, who can finance his own campaign and therefore opt out of the matching-fund program (and its limits), could stand to benefit from a front-loaded system.

Among the losers would likely be the voters, who have grown less interested in politics over the years. A shorter primary season would make it even more difficult for voters to tune in to the various candidates, especially outside the few big early-primary states.

An alternative scenario, however, could build the suspense of nomination right into the summer conventions. If no candidate can afford to make a big push nationwide, as would be needed in a compressed primary season, then it's possible no single candidate would emerge with enough delegates to secure nomination. In that case, the nominating convention would actually select the nominee.

But that type of nomination hasn't taken place for either party in decades. It's more likely, say analysts, that candidates would make a big bicoastal push early on, and the nomination race would be effectively over March 7.

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