Playing Catch-Up May Be Harder This Time

By Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 5, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 4 -- When George W. Bush stumbled here in his quest for the presidency in 2000, he had 18 days to recover before the next major primary. But the erstwhile front-runners humbled in Iowa this week emerged with just five days to get back on their feet, slow down their rivals and salvage their campaigns.

For all the discussion about how early this year's presidential primary season started, the more profound change in the political calendar is how compressed it has become. Starting with the Iowa caucuses, 31 states will vote over 33 days for the nominee of one or both parties, compared with just nine states that voted in the equivalent period eight years ago.

The furious pace of contests this year will be so intense that it could make momentum king and increase the challenge exponentially for Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Mitt Romney as they try to shrug off defeats in Iowa and regroup for New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday. That proves a bitter irony for both camps, which had built their strategies around the assumption that they would exploit the compressed schedule to roll over other candidates before anyone had a chance to catch up.

"This is a faster track than ever before," said Scott Reed, a political strategist who ran Republican Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign in 1996 and had the luxury of a couple of weeks to revive it after it faltered early in New Hampshire. "It leaves very little margin for error if you're a front-runner. It's tougher to lose two nights in a row and think you can carry on."

As the campaigns rolled into New Hampshire early Friday morning, they had only hours to absorb the Iowa caucus results, decide whether (or how) to retool their strategies and set last-minute television advertising. The campaign window is so abbreviated that it was already too late to commission new mailings and to count on getting them into voters' hands before they go to the polls.

The campaigns will have to rely on the organizations they long ago built here and in other early-primary states to carry them through despite an early loss -- or even losses -- and enable them to compete when more than 20 states vote Feb. 5. "It's going to go so fast from start to finish," said Terence R. McAuliffe, Clinton's campaign chairman. "Once we get through the early states . . . I think we're going to go with tremendous momentum into the February 5 states."

The Iowa losers are also counting on New Hampshire's contrarian streak; it has frequently chosen a different favorite than its Midwestern cousin. But the usual eight days between the contests has now been cut nearly in half, leaving little time for the victors' media bounce to fade. Once a sense of momentum builds around a campaign, strategists said, it becomes awfully hard to turn things around in a short time frame.

"I've been there," said Joe Trippi, a strategist for Democrat John Edwards who worked for Howard Dean in 2004, speaking in an interview before the Iowa vote. "There isn't anyone on the planet who can knock down that wave."

Bush's experience in 2000 underscores the impact of this year's accelerated schedule. After losing to Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire, Bush headed to South Carolina, where he hit bottom in the polls but slowly began to climb back up as his well-funded campaign launched withering attacks on McCain. "The key fact was we had 18 days," said Warren Tompkins, who ran Bush's South Carolina campaign. "It used to be we had sensibility in the system. Now we got chaos the way the calendar's set up."

This year, the Republicans have just seven days after New Hampshire to prepare for the Michigan primary, followed by South Carolina four days later. Strategists in the Bush and McCain camps say that sort of timetable could easily have changed the outcome eight years ago. "If we had had this schedule in 2000, I think McCain could have swept," said Rick Davis, the campaign manager for the senator from Arizona then and now. "We would have won everything but Iowa."

The dynamics this year are different in the two parties. Among Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has the resources and the poll numbers to potentially capitalize on his Iowa victory and overtake Clinton in New Hampshire, where the senator from New York has long led in polls. A pair of back-to-back victories could be enough to propel Obama into South Carolina and the Feb. 5 states, and undermine Clinton's claim to be the most electable Democrat. Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, edged out Clinton for second place in Iowa but has trailed both rivals in New Hampshire.

The Democrats have more time than the Republicans after New Hampshire, as the Democratic National Committee is not counting delegates awarded in Michigan's Jan. 15 primary because the vote was scheduled earlier than party rules allowed. The Democratic candidates will head next to Nevada on Jan. 19 and South Carolina on Jan. 26.

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