New Hampshire Democrats launched a public campaign yesterday to preserve their first-in-the-nation presidential primary against intrusions from rival states and the work of a Democratic Party commission. Granite State partisans said the quadrennial presidential spotlight is as vital to the identity of their state as the Derby is to Kentucky and the Statute of Liberty is to New York.

The action came less than two weeks before a Democratic National Committee commission studying the presidential nominating process is scheduled to recommend changes to the calendar for 2008. Party officials said the commission will probably propose inserting two to four caucus contests ahead of the New Hampshire primary but after Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Under this scenario, New Hampshire would still hold the first primary election, but its publicity and clout would be diminished.

To head off such a recommendation, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan and former chairman Joe Keefe offered what they described as a compromise proposal. It would give two more states, to be selected later by the national committee, the authority to move up their contests to the first weeks of the nomination battle -- but schedule them after the New Hampshire primary.

The competing plans -- and the stakes involved for the winners -- set up a potentially nasty showdown at the commission's meeting on Dec. 10. New Hampshire's representatives on the committee, who view their state's traditional status as something close to a divine franchise, are led by former governor Jeanne Shaheen (D). The advocates for changing the calendar -- the most vocal of whom has been Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) -- triggered the commission's creation with complaints about New Hampshire's outsized influence.

Iowa and New Hampshire have long enjoyed privileged positions in selecting presidential nominees. Because both are small states with relatively homogeneous populations, Democrats from other parts of the country have pressed to give states in other regions with sizable African American or Latino populations an opportunity to hold early contests.

Officials from Iowa and New Hampshire have argued that the states provide valuable testing-grounds for candidates, and that the tradition of grilling presidential hopefuls in living rooms, coffee shops and school gymnasiums has contributed immeasurably to the nominating process.

Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, said Democrats recognize the roles of New Hampshire and Iowa but some want to give a few more states the same opportunity early in the process. "I don't think anyone is voting to take them off the table," she said. "But what we're saying is it's time to give other states a chance."

Keefe and Sullivan said their plan would solve the most pressing problem in the nominating calendar, which is the increasing tendency of states to bunch up their contests early in the year. In 2004, Sullivan noted, 12 states held primaries or caucuses within an eight-day span in early February.

"The front-loading process will hurt the Democratic nominee," Sullivan said. "We will have a nominee in middle to late January, while Republicans are dominating airwaves for weeks or months after that."

In 2004, by contrast, many Democrats touted the advantages of a front-loaded process, since it ostensibly produced less intraparty bloodletting.

Mike Stratton, a commission member from Colorado and advocate for adding a Western primary to the early voting, remains optimistic about the panel reaching a consensus despite the recent jousting.

"I think for the commission to have done its duty successfully, we need to come up with a concept that is a consensus plan," Stratton said. "For my interest in the West, we need to have a consensus plan because otherwise the West continues to be excluded."

Cillizza is a staff writer for washingtonpost.com.