Mich. Primary Move Splits Democrats
Candidates Stay Away, but Others Say State's Voice Should Match Its Size

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

DEARBORN, Mich., Oct. 8 -- For Debbie Dingell and Sen. Carl M. Levin, the standoff has been brewing for years. The Michigan Democrats have long worked, mostly behind the scenes, to change an electoral calendar that places vast importance on results in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that bear little resemblance to the industrial heartland.

"There's just no possible justification for one or two states that are not particularly representative to have a dominant role in this process. It's not fair to other states," Levin said in a telephone interview. "Why the hell do New Hampshire and Iowa have a claim to the attention to their issues?"

Republican presidential candidates will be standing on a Dearborn stage Tuesday afternoon, discussing manufacturing, jobs and the U.S. economy. Democrats, meanwhile, are shunning Michigan in retaliation for the state's decision to elbow its way into the early primary lineup. When Michigan moved its primary to Jan. 15, leaders in New Hampshire and Iowa leaned on the Democratic principals to stay away.

The result is a tangle, with the Democratic National Committee vowing not to seat any convention delegates Michigan chooses that day and Democratic presidential candidates facing a deadline of Tuesday to decide whether to remain on the ballot here.

Those behind Michigan's move are warning candidates that removing their names would be risky.

"We are going January 15," Dingell, a Democratic national committeewoman and the wife of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), declared after a fiery speech here Friday. "No matter what, people are going to pay attention to what happens on January 15 . . . even if it's a beauty contest."

Meanwhile, Republican contenders are campaigning actively in a state in which their race looks wide open.

"We couldn't have planned it better ourselves," said Bill Nowling, the state GOP spokesman. "While they're busy shooting themselves in the foot, I'm not going to disturb them."

Before the leapfrogging began, it appeared that Iowa would hold its caucuses on Jan. 14, followed five days later by caucuses in Nevada. New Hampshire would preserve its customary premier primary slot on Jan. 22, and South Carolina would hold its primary Jan. 29.

The candidates planned their travel, staffing and media buys accordingly, but then Florida made a move.

Defying the DNC, Florida moved its primary to Jan. 29, which prompted South Carolina Republicans to jump to Jan. 19 and retain their state's distinction as the first Southern state to vote. New Hampshire law requires the state's primary to be at least seven days before any similar contest, so Secretary of State William M. Gardner declared that the vote would move up by at least a week. That gave Michigan its opening.

After the 2004 election, the DNC agreed to review the schedule with an eye toward tempering the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire. It added Nevada and South Carolina, states with more Hispanic and black voters, respectively, as the second and fourth stops on the primary tour.

Michigan's political leaders were disappointed not to be added to the first four but went along, expecting that other states would abide by the new calendar. When the dates started to shift -- and particularly when Gardner said New Hampshire would move up -- they considered the deal broken.

Levin and Debbie Dingell took their case to DNC Chairman Howard Dean last month, complaining that he was standing by silently as New Hampshire broke its promise. They asked Dean to urge Democrats not to campaign there.

"Someone," the two wrote, "has to take on New Hampshire's transparent effort to violate the DNC rules and to maintain its privileged position."

Instead, the DNC warned Michigan that any delegates chosen Jan. 15 would not be seated at next summer's convention in Denver, the same punishment that Florida Democrats are suing the party over. Rules and schedules are essential, one DNC official said, to ensure "fairness and predictability."

"I don't see anything we can do," the official said, "without all hell breaking loose."

As a practical matter, no Democratic nominee wants a floor fight over Florida and Michigan delegates, state officials say.

"The Democratic candidates are too smart not to find a way to campaign in Michigan and Florida," Levin said, "and they're not that self-destructive."

In Dearborn, Debbie Dingell won cheers when she told hundreds of union workers at a state AFSCME gathering that Michigan voters have been forced "for too long" to size up the candidates from afar.

In a spirited call-and-response, she asked workers whether they would rather see Democratic candidates in Michigan talking about manufacturing, jobs and their future, "instead of talking about wood-burning stoves in the middle of New Hampshire in winter."

Danny Craig is on board. "We've earned the right to move up," said the longtime union activist from Detroit.

"We've got two small states, not industrial states, deciding who should be the candidate leading the charge and setting the terms of the debate," said Craig, who also believes the Democrats' avoidance of Michigan will be lost on regular voters. "I don't think the public will understand. I think it's a bad decision."

Stacie Dineen, an AFSCME representative from Kalamazoo, sees the issue in different terms. Noting that Michigan initially planned to choose delegates by caucus, she is dismayed that caucuses underwritten by the political parties will be replaced by a far more costly primary paid for by taxpayers.

"We don't have to be the first dog on the block. I just think the timing is terrible to do that. We should be focused on the here and now," Dineen said. "The next thing you know, we'll be voting before Christmas."

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