The national political parties will face a moment of truth in coming weeks: Can they impose order on a primary calendar that has states leaping over one another to host the first presidential nominating contest?
The Democratic National Committee took its boldest step of the year late last month, threatening to strip Florida of all its delegates to the national convention unless the state pushes back its Jan. 29 primary date.
The Republican National Committee vowed last week to dock half the delegates of any state with a GOP primary before Feb. 5, a group expected to include Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wyoming.
But party organizations in many of those states remain defiant. Some insist it's time for New Hampshire and Iowa to share the spotlight with other states, while others portray their early dates as a protest against a nominating system they see as broken.
Time to firm up the calendar is running out. State GOP parties must submit their primary plans to the national party by Sept. 4, and Florida has until late September to pick a new date or lose its delegates under the DNC sanctions.
Stacie Paxton, press secretary for the DNC, said Florida's penalty is meant in part as a lesson to other states weighing earlier primary dates, and she likened the measure to schoolyard discipline. "You can say to a child, 'You're going to receive a punishment,' " she says. "But if you don't enact the punishment, it also sends a signal to other children that they can get away with it, too."
Candidates vow to maintain discipline
The pressure on defiant states increased over the weekend, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina announcing they had signed a pledge not to campaign in any state that tries to jump ahead of the Democratic contests in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina. The "four-state pledge" had already been signed by several of the lower-tier Democratic candidates, including Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
But so far, all the tough talk isn't taking.
The Michigan legislature on Thursday moved its Republican and Democratic contests to Jan. 15. Wyoming Republicans announced last week that they were advancing their caucus-like conventions to Jan. 5, ahead of every other state.
Florida Democrats have gone on the offensive, with top leaders denouncing the national party and threatening legal action. "We cannot go along with anything but the state-run primary set for next January," Florida's 10 congressional Democrats, led by Sen. Bill Nelson, said in a statement last week. "We strongly encourage all Democrats to vote for their preferred nominee in that primary, regardless of whatever penalties the DNC might enact."
Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, says the state is willing to risk a loss of delegates to guard its traditional role in the nominating process.
"If the RNC forces New Hampshire delegates to make a choice between being a delegate to the national convention or protecting and preserving the first-in-the-nation primary, we'll choose the New Hampshire primary," he says. "We've always gone first."
Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, says the Jan. 15 date, which passed the legislature with bipartisan support last week and has the governor's nod, would force candidates to pay closer attention to the state's issues. "This is huge for us," he says.
He takes exception to the notion that the Iowa and New Hampshire contests should remain first because of tradition. "It doesn't make it right," he says. "Michigan has as much of a right as any other state to be significant in the process."
Tom Sansonetti, the Wyoming Republican Party's county conventions coordinator, says the state's new GOP primary date – as of now the first in the nation – has already paid dividends. A recent visit by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the first to the state by a major candidate in primary season in at least three decades, he says.
"We're not trying to be first to be first," he says. "We're just trying to be heard, and to show the unfairness of the current nominating system," which he says gives a small number of states – largely in the north and east – disproportionate influence. "The only way you can fix something sometimes is to break the rules."
Under the Democratic rules, the only states that may hold a primary before Feb. 5 are New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada. The Republican rules bar primaries before Feb. 5, but they don't apply to Nevada and Iowa because their early caucuses are technically nonbinding.
Consequences of breaking party rules
Ms. Paxton says well-spaced primaries compel candidates to spread their attention across the country. "It's important for candidates to be able to address different communities, address different regional issues, so we nominate the best nominee for the entire nation," she says.
But with some 20 states now planning contests on Feb. 5, the rules do not appear to be achieving even that result.
Breaking party rules could backfire for some states. Presidential candidates are less likely to invest money and time in a contest that can't deliver delegates to the national conventions, a fate that befell the Iowa Republican straw poll last month August, which every leading GOP hopeful but Mr. Romney skipped.
"We believe Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina play a unique and special role in the nominating process," the Clinton campaign said Saturday in a statement announcing its commitment to the "four-state pledge."
Party leaders in some states say they are unruffled by a possible backlash. They say that at the national conventions next year, where delegates are counted to select a nominee, the parties' national leaders would be likely to suspend any sanctions and seat a full slate of delegates from each state in the interest of party unity.
In the meantime, states are willing to take their chances. Mr. Sansonetti of the Wyoming GOP says even if sanctions are enforced at the 2008 convention, "We'll say, 'Go ahead and take our delegates.'
"It's worth it to go first."