Facing a backlash of criticism of the foreshortened primary calendar of 2000, leaders of both political parties are weighing how to avoid another "rush to judgment" on their presidential nominees in 2004.
Without publicity, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson last week appointed one of his predecessors, Bill Brock, to head a task force on revising the presidential primary system. Nicholson's goal, according to chief of staff Tom Cole, is to bring a proposal to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia next August.
Members of the commission are still being picked, but one slot has been promised to Bill Jones, the California secretary of state and co-author of a plan for regional primaries that has been endorsed by the national organization of secretaries of state -- the people who administer elections in their jurisdictions.
Bill Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of state and Jones's partner on the project, said he is pressing the Democratic National Committee to move on the issue. Roy Romer, general chairman of the DNC, said in an interview, "We have no process under way, but my personal view is that we have front-loaded this system too much and we need to change it."
The pressure for change has been growing for some time, as more and more states advanced the dates of their presidential primaries in hopes of attracting more time and money from the candidates and achieving a strategic role in deciding who becomes president. When California, New York and Ohio all moved up their primaries for 2000 to March 7, Michigan, Virginia and Washington leapfrogged into February.
As things stand, most observers believe the nominations will be settled in a span of five weeks between Jan. 31, the tentative date of the Iowa caucuses, and March 7, the bi-coastal, big-state shootout, when not only California, New York and Ohio, but also Maryland, Georgia and most of New England will vote.
Brock, a former senator from Tennessee and secretary of labor who headed the RNC from 1977 to 1980, said the current system "is terribly dangerous for the country. It affords almost no opportunity for people really to listen carefully and evaluate the candidates." But, Brock cautioned, "I don't think it's going to be easy to find a solution."
Jones and Galvin said the secretaries of state are reluctant to ask Congress for legislation, because the administration of elections has been a state responsibility. However, Galvin said, "If it takes an act of Congress to get this done, I'm willing to do it."
The courts have given the national parties broad discretion to set their own nominating procedures, and the hope of people like Jones and Galvin is that if the Democrats and Republicans can agree on a system, their plan would carry weight in the legislatures and be enforced by the courts.
Before he became chairman, Nicholson headed an RNC task force that pushed through a bonus system, awarding extra delegates to states that agreed to delay their primaries. But that move, approved by the last Republican convention, did virtually nothing to slow the race for early dates.
The plan proposed by the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) would maintain Iowa and New Hampshire as the sites of the first two nominating contests, because, Galvin said, "We don't want to have a fight with two states that have had it as part of their tradition."
After those February contests, regional primaries would be held on the first Tuesdays of March, April, May and June, with the order of regions rotating with each election cycle. Jones said he had urged NASS to specify that the new system give the East first place in 2004, followed by the South, the Midwest and the West, because "there is a lot of `Anybody but California' sentiment out there." Others, he said, have argued for a lottery each time to determine the order of regions.
Jones said the month-long intervals between regions would guarantee that no one could lock up the nomination at least until May and would "force candidates to campaign state by state and answer voters' questions."
Party officials said that while the NASS plan is the most fully developed, other alternatives could emerge. But at a meeting in Washington last week sponsored by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the Pew Charitable Trusts, "Nicholson and Romer both said this system is out of control," according to Galvin.
The objections voiced at the meeting, which was closed to the media, reportedly included claims that money and name familiarity are too important in the current process and that voters lose interest in candidates when the nominations are settled early and a long time elapses before the general election campaign begins.
Romer said that he shares those concerns but wants to be "deliberate" on dealing with the problem, because he does not want arguments about future primary schedules to interfere with the focus on the 2000 campaign. Unlike the Republicans, who must have rules changes approved by their convention next August, the Democrats could alter the primary schedule by action of the national committee after next November's election.