Primary Season Getting Earlier

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007; 11:54 AM

South Carolina's Republican Party announced today it is moving its 2008 presidential primary forward to Jan. 19, 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 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.

Dawson made the announcement in a joint appearance in Concord, N.H., with New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who under New Hampshire law must set his state's primary, currently scheduled for Jan. 22, at least a week before any other.

"We are here to stand shoulder to shoulder with our friends in New Hampshire to reaffirm the important role that both of our states play in presidential politics," Dawson said.

Under some scenarios, the South Carolina 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.

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. 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 yesterday, 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."

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