National Parties Uneasy as States Rush Primaries

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007

Leaders in the Republican and Democratic parties are struggling to contain a national calendar revolt by their state affiliates that threatens to shift the 2008 presidential nominating contest into the closing months of 2007.

And by all indications, they are losing.

On Thursday, the state of Florida voted to move its primary to Jan. 29, ahead of all but three states, in a move designed to make the Sunshine State's 18 million residents more relevant. This follows a flood of activity by 23 states, including California and New York, that moved their contests up to Feb. 5, creating what is being dubbed "Tsunami Tuesday" when more than 65 million Americans could cast primary ballots.

It's not likely to stop there. Florida's move seems likely to spark further action by the states voting on Feb. 5. And it's all but certain to cause political leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire -- who guard their front-of-the-process status jealously -- to move their voting up even further. William M. Gardner, New Hampshire's secretary of state, said yesterday that moving its primary to December is "not beyond the realm of possibility."

The national parties have threatened to retaliate by penalizing their state chapters and, in the case of the Democrats, any candidate who dares to set foot in those states to campaign this year. Some state delegations could find themselves arriving at the 2008 national conventions with no official standing.

"The parties have lost control of the calendar" said John Weaver, the chief strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "And not necessarily to the benefit of the American people."

"It's going to change everything," predicted Charles R. Black Jr., a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Just as you were about to the point where the calendar was going to shake down and be predictable, this means South Carolina will move up. That probably means New Hampshire moves up. And then Iowa moves up."

"There's no way to end it this time," he added.

Officials at the Republican National Committee -- chaired by Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) -- said they will not confront the issue directly until after a Sept. 4 deadline for states to inform the national party of their decisions. But spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt warned flatly that "any state that holds it primary or caucus [before Feb. 5 or after July 28] will be penalized."

Democratic National Committee officials also reiterated their hard-line stance against unauthorized calendar moves. But a spokeswoman also said there might be room for a negotiated compromise with Florida.

"This is not the first time that a state legislature has set its primary on a date outside DNC party rules and, as with similar situations in the past, the DNC is working closely with the state party to look at the alternatives for proceeding in accordance with the rules" that require that all but the four early states hold their primaries on or after Feb. 5, said Stacie Paxton, the DNC press secretary.

That could take the form, for example, of a nonbinding primary to be held before February and a caucus conducted after Feb. 5 whose winner would be awarded the delegates, she said.

For the presidential candidates, the uncertainty of when and where voting will begin is helping to fuel an unprecedented amount of preelection-year activity. The candidates are in the process of shattering all fundraising records and are stumping across the country earlier and with greater ferocity than ever.

Candidates have already attended or scheduled more than 500 events in the four states which currently plan to hold the earliest contests.

By the beginning of June, three nationally televised debates will have been held on the Republican side while Democrats will have engaged in two.

And without a calendar that is set in stone, the strategists for the candidates are having to rethink everything from how to schedule the candidate's travel to how to balance spending on television commercials, door knockers, direct mail and grass-roots infrastructure.

"Everybody involved in the '08 process is once again having to scramble their plans and figure out what steps they have to take," said Ken Mehlman, who chaired the RNC during the 2004 campaign. "The candidates have to plan for contingency on top of contingency on top of contingency."

With the dominoes tumbling, political observers said raising money and making good early impressions will be even more critical than usual for the candidates in both parties. And they said the prospect of so many big, expensive states acting so early may increase the desire to get a big win in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Weaver said it will not be practical for any candidate to campaign equally in all of the big states that are moving their contests up. But he said that does not mean the candidates can afford to ignore them either, regardless of threats from the national parties.

"It's going to cause Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to be even earlier than people had anticipated. Those states will have even added value," he said. "But nobody can count on that. You gotta plan appropriately to be competitive in Florida both organizationally and with a message. All of us will see a lot of Florida beaches."

Florida legislators and Gov. Charlie Crist (R) touted the advantages of being at the front of the line for both the state and the country.

"It's important to have a megastate weigh in early," Crist said. "Florida is a microcosm of America. It's a good bellwether of how America feels."

In passing the bill, legislators argued that Florida's demographics more closely resemble those of the nation than do those of New Hampshire and Iowa.

Asked how the national political parties will respond, Crist said, "They'll be fine. They're going to have to be. Whenever someone tries to limit democracy, that's not good. . . . We can all get caught up in rules and regulation. But this country is about freedom and democracy. 'Let freedom ring' is my feeling on this."

Staff writer Peter Whoriskey and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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