When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced{vbar}http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/15/AR2007021500876.html plans to hold an unusual Saturday session last week to vote on the House-passed resolution opposing President Bush's plan to send more U.S. troops into Iraq, he disrupted the schedules of at least six of his colleagues who are running for president.

Joe Biden and John McCain were both supposed to spend the day in Iowa; Hillary Clinton, in New Hampshire; Chris Dodd, in South Carolina; Barack Obama, in South Carolina and Virginia; and Sam Brownback, in Florida.

It's only February of 2007, but from the schedules these presidential hopefuls -- and their rivals -- are keeping, you would think the primaries were almost upon us. Plenty of campaign consultants were aggravated that Reid was inconsiderate enough to let a little matter such as the Iraq war intrude on their important work of getting their candidates elected -- next year.

What we have, friends, is a remarkably distinguished field of candidates vying in an election system that has become truly insane.

I think the 16 men and one woman actively pursuing the presidency right now constitute a classy assemblage. The front-runners are people of substantial stature; the long shots include many who, in other years, would have been thought of as formidable challengers.

But the process in which they are engaged is bizarre -- and getting more so, every time you look.

Ever since 1976, the first presidential election year after the Democrats "reformed" their nominating rules, the states have been trying to increase their influence by racing to the head of the line of primaries. The result has been that a selection system that used to begin in March now is over in February -- at the latest.

The Democrats are mostly to blame for this mad rush to judgment, but neither party has tried seriously to apply the brakes. Their indulgence of this breakneck competition among the states means that someone is likely to put a death grip on each party's nomination before most Americans have begun to size up his or her capacity to be president. The second consequence is a numbingly long general election campaign: a nine-month marathon that leaves contenders and voters exhausted.

It also drives the cost of the election right through the ceiling -- and makes the candidates spend untold hours courting those with the wealth to finance their campaigns. Serious students of the process proclaim this to be the first billion-dollar election and predict the old system of partial public financing, with its spending controls, will be shattered to bits by the runaway money chase.

How did all this come to pass? Well, it began innocently enough with both parties giving official sanction to the traditional early kickoff contests -- the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But as other states began inching forward, Iowa and New Hampshire advanced their dates, bit by bit, into January.

This year, the Democrats triggered a new stampede by deciding -- on grounds of diversity -- to cram the Nevada caucuses into the week between Iowa and New Hampshire and add a South Carolina primary just a week later.

Those four January events may be followed by a Feb. 5 blowout that will very possibly end the race. Four mega-states -- Florida, Illinois, Texas and California -- are all advancing legislation that would move their contests up to that date. Alabama may sneak in three days earlier, and other states are considering jumping in.

This is madness. There is no way that candidates can really communicate their qualifications, their aspirations and their policies to millions of people in widely scattered locales in a week's time or less. The campaign will be reduced to 30-second TV spots, sound-bite debates and airport tarmac rallies.

Long ago, the late Mo Udall, the canny congressman from Arizona who finished second to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 primaries, proposed the best solution I've ever heard.

He urged the parties to adopt a simple rule: Any state could hold a nonbinding contest any day it wants, but delegates to the national conventions would be seated only if elected on the first Tuesday of March, April, May or June. That way you would get spacing between the events to allow for serious examination of the choices and, probably, a mixture of results that would keep the race open until the end.

What we have now is so out of kilter that senatorial candidates can barely tend to their duties a year before the first primary.