Primary Season Getting Earlier

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

South Carolina's Republican Party will move its 2008 presidential primary forward to Jan. 19, sources said yesterday, a decision almost certain to spark a cascade of calendar changes that could push the start of voting to New Year's Day or even to before Christmas.

The move, set to be announced today, is likely to cause the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses to be shifted at least to early January, and other states are actively angling to stake out spots earlier in the process. The maneuvering has injected a new note of uncertainty into what is already the earliest-starting presidential campaign in history, and top strategists for the candidates said it would force them to revise their carefully worked out plans.

Katon Dawson, who heads the South Carolina GOP, made the shift to retain the distinction of holding the "first in the South" presidential primary balloting. Dawson's move was sparked by the Florida legislature's decision to upstage South Carolina by moving the state's primary to Jan. 29. South Carolina had been scheduled to vote Feb. 2.

Under some scenarios, the decision could lead Iowa to hold its caucuses in mid-December, creating an unprecedented situation in which convention delegates are selected in the calendar year before a presidential election.

The move is certain to trigger action by New Hampshire Secretary of State William M. Gardner, who is compelled by state law to set the date of his state's primary at least a week before any other. That could push New Hampshire's primary, currently scheduled for Jan. 22, to Jan. 8.

In Iowa, state law requires presidential nominating caucuses to be held at least eight days before any other voting.

"We understand that us naming the date has consequences for New Hampshire. We respect that," Dawson said yesterday as he boarded a plane to New Hampshire, where he plans to make the announcement alongside Gardner. But he added: "We have an historic place in presidential politics. We've been on record for two years that we will be first in the South."

Gardner, in an interview, vowed that New Hampshire will "preserve our tradition" of holding the first presidential primary in the nation, but he said he did not expect to make an announcement about a primary date today.

"I am bound by our state law, and I will follow the state law," Gardner said. "This moving up has been a process that has just continued and continued and continued."

The calendar changes are infuriating senior strategists for presidential candidates in both parties, who say it is forcing them to plot a path to the nomination through quicksand. The uncertainty is holding up decisions about where to campaign and to devote resources.

"If you're facing a moving chessboard, it's pretty difficult to know where to make your first move," said Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University. "Imagine playing chess if the board keeps changing."

Lichtman said earlier voting could create the longest-ever general election campaign if the two party nominees are largely decided by mid-January. That would leave almost 10 months for the candidates -- and any third-party entrant -- to battle for the presidency before Election Day on Nov. 4, 2008.

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