The Democratic and Republican national conventions of August 2004, seem a long way off, but voters should take note: The Iowa party caucuses are set for January 19, just about nine months away. The New Hampshire primary is in Jan. 27 - not in February. And a half dozen states are considering moving their primaries to early February.
Presidential primaries are being held earlier and bunched up in the competition among states to gain national prominence. This sorry trend shortens the time for voters to see how each candidate adjusts to the political ups and downs of each race.
A supercondensed primary calendar creates an untenable situation in which candidates with the most money, and the highest profiles, de facto become the most likely serious contenders. Dark-horse candidates with little money don't get a fair shake.
A front-runner will have to emerge quickly from the early contests, out of necessity. And for Democrats, the leader of the pack could be clear as early as Feb. 3.
With less time between contests, candidates can't get as close to the people. Instead, they must rely on buying more television ads, which means raising more money from special interests.
One possible solution - regional primaries. It's an idea that's been floated many times, but one that may take federal intervention to make it happen. The National Association of Secretaries of State backs the idea of a rotating set of regional primaries. The country would be divided into four regions, each with an equal number of delegates. Each region would hold a primary on the first Tuesday of March, April, May, and June, respectively. That time frame allows for a broader debate, and gives every region, over time, a chance to be first.
In the interest of meaningful voter participation, states and national party leaders must work out a system that reduces the influence of money and gives more primary voters a fair look at all the candidates.