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."
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.
"We could have the general election starting at a time when traditionally the nominees hadn't been close to being selected," he said. The primary campaign has so far done "anything but inspire the voters," he added. "I doubt if a 10-month general election campaign will do any better."
The timing of Dawson's decision was prompted in part by a Sept. 4 deadline for states to notify the Republican National Committee about their plans to hold a primary or risk losing some delegates to the national convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul in September 2008.
South Carolina's Democratic primary, which is scheduled to take place Jan. 29, is not affected by the decision. But the resulting moves by New Hampshire and Iowa would apply to both parties' contests in those states.
The calendar has been shifting despite warnings from officials of the two national party committees, who have threatened to punish state parties holding their voting earlier.
The RNC can block half of a state's delegates to the national convention for defying the party's wishes. The Democratic National Committee has threatened to disqualify delegates pledged to candidates who campaign in states in which it has not authorized early voting.
Those threats have had little impact on state leaders, who predict that the parties would not follow through on those threats by the time of the conventions next summer.
Florida's legislature moved its primary to Jan. 29 in the hopes of attracting Democratic and Republican candidates to the state before Feb. 5, when more than 20 states, including California and New York, are scheduled to vote on a day dubbed "Tsunami Tuesday." In past years, some of the biggest states have conducted primaries in May or June, long after the nominees had been determined.
Still unclear is the potential impact of decisions by Michigan and Nevada, which could also seek to vote earlier. Politicians in both states have been eager to move up their presidential voting, hoping to become more relevant in the nomination process.
Some advocates of earlier dates for larger states' primaries had argued that democracy is not served by having small and somewhat demographically generic states, such as New Hampshire and Iowa, wield so much clout in the nominating process.
But some political consultants who are veterans of national campaigns say that shifting the calendar does not change the basic equation: The winners in Iowa and New Hampshire will gain momentum that could overwhelm their rivals in subsequent primaries.
"Moving the primary calendar three weeks doesn't make this process any more democratic or change the outcome," said Stephanie Cutter, who served as communications director for Democratic candidate John F. Kerry in 2004. "It just means that the front-runners will run the table that much faster."
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.