State Democratic Groups Bid For Early Primary Season Slots

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, April 20 -- The Democratic National Committee staged a beauty contest here Thursday -- not for politicians, but for states. From almost every region of the country they came to compete for the chance to help start the presidential nominating process in 2008.

Nevada Democrats distributed a costly and colorful brochure, and aired the slickest video of the day to promote their state's rapidly changing electorate as an ideal testing ground for candidates. Arkansas Democrats touted their many venues for retail politicking, including VIP toad races at the annual Toad Suck Daze festival. Hawaii offered perfect weather for winter campaigning.

The states were scrambling to take advantage of coming changes to the Democratic primary and caucus calendar in 2008, which will alter a system that long has given top early billing to Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary.

In 2008, Iowa will still have the first caucus and New Hampshire the first primary. But as many as four other states will be added to early weeks of the season -- one or two between Iowa and New Hampshire, and one or two immediately after. On Thursday, Democratic leaders from 11 states and the District began bidding for the available slots.

Everyone claimed an early contest in their state holds the key to winning back the White House.

Southerners said Democratic presidential candidates must relearn how to campaign in states where faith and family values have given Republicans the advantage. "I believe South Carolina is the perfect laboratory to confront ethnic and racial issues, to confront faith issues, to confront economic issues," said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). "If you prove your mettle in South Carolina, you will be successful in the United States of America."

Westerners said the future hopes of the Democratic Party lie in their region, where the growing Hispanic population is changing the politics of many states. Mark Brewer, the Michigan state chairman, said Democrats need a big Great Lakes state at the front of the calendar because that region remains the most important battleground in the general election. "If you want to ignore one-third of the [electoral] votes necessary to win the presidency, you take a risk," he said as ominously as he could make it sound.

Michigan is the reason for what happened Thursday, thanks to persistence of Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who for years has complained about what he considers the privileged positions of Iowa and New Hampshire.

It was Levin's criticism that prompted the DNC to create a commission to study the calendar. That group made its recommendations late last year, tossing the delicate issue to the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, which must make recommendations to the full DNC membership and to DNC Chairman Howard Dean later this year.

Brewer made clear that Michigan will do almost anything to get one of the slots. Some states said they wanted to hold early caucuses; some said they want to stage early primaries. Brewer said Michigan will do either. "You tell us where to go, and we will conform to the requirements," he said. Asked how many steps a Michigan caucus process would include, he replied, "However many you need."

Diversity -- demographic, geographic and economic -- was a principal selling point, because one big complaint about Iowa and New Hampshire is the absence of minorities. For more than three hours, members of delegations reeled off a blizzard of statistics on the size of their Hispanic or African American or Asian American or Native American populations, or the strength of their union movements, another factor Democrats are studying.

Not every state could pass that test. "The bottom line is, we're white," Tom Vogel, the executive director of West Virginia's Democratic Party said to laughter when asked for a population breakdown of his state. "That's pretty much it."

Committee members peppered the delegations with questions. Why was Michigan's turnout so low? asked Kathy Sullivan, the New Hampshire Democratic chairwoman and not exactly a disinterested participant. (New Hampshire partisans are still hoping the competition to its special status in picking presidents can be minimized.) How will candidates get around Colorado in the winter? Was there anything unique that voters would learn about candidates from their campaigning in Alabama? How much will candidates have to talk about the issue of gambling if they campaign extensively in Nevada?

At one point, the Arizona delegation was asked what chance Democrats would have of winning Arizona if Sen. John McCain were the Republican presidential nominee, even if the state were granted an early contest. To that, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), speaking by telephone to the group, deadpanned the obvious, "He will be the favorite son in Arizona, no doubt."

The committee has many months before it sorts out the applications and makes recommendations. For now, committee member Thomas C. Hynes spoke for others when he asked the staff to compile a chart summing up what had been offered by the various states. Running on information overload, he said, "My brain hurts right now."

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