A Democratic Party task force approved changes yesterday aimed at bringing more diversity to the early stages of the 2008 presidential nominating calendar but only after defeating a far more significant proposal to eliminate the special first-in-the-nation status of Iowa and New Hampshire.
The final report of the Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling reaffirmed Iowa's opening caucuses and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary election but also proposed changes that would authorize caucuses in one or two other states between Iowa and New Hampshire and primaries in one or two other states the week after New Hampshire.
"We're proposing an incremental solution that is neither radical nor trivial," said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), co-chairman of the commission.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), whose objections to the status of Iowa and New Hampshire led to the formation of the commission, called the changes modest but better than no change.
"I hope it's the beginning of the end of the privileged position," he said. "It's a crack in the wall which New Hampshire and Iowa have built around their privilege. I think the wall sooner or later will come tumbling down and should."
The carefully balanced proposal was designed to mollify critics of the current system, who argued that Iowa and New Hampshire are too unrepresentative to have privileged status. They wanted more significant changes to assure greater regional, demographic and economic diversity at the front of the nominating process.
The additional states at the beginning are expected to come from the South and the West in an effort to give black and Latino voters a larger voice in selecting the party's nominee.
But commission members also worried about offending voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states likely to be battlegrounds in the 2008 general election, and praised both states for the way voters have grilled candidates in living rooms, coffee shops and town hall meetings over the years.
The key changes were adopted 23 to 2, with New Hampshire's two commissioners, former governor Jeanne Shaheen and former ambassador Terry Shumaker, the only dissenters. Kathy Sullivan, the state Democratic chairwoman, condemned the changes in a later statement, saying the new plan "would make the process narrower and less democratic and it would be a huge setback to Democrats' efforts to carry Iowa and New Hampshire in the future."
The report was sent to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and will be considered by the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee in February.
The full DNC is expected to vote on the package at its April meeting in New Orleans. The changes depend on acceptance by individual states, and New Hampshire officials already have given notice that they will not be bound by a plan that violates their first-primary-in-the-nation statute.
For some commissioners, the changes proposed by Price and former labor secretary Alexis M. Herman, the other co-chair, were far too modest, prompting an amendment that would have prevented any state from holding a primary or caucus before Feb. 5, 2008.
The proposal, offered by former Clinton administration official Maria Echaveste, was designed not only to make explicit that the party would no longer give special status to Iowa or New Hampshire but also to delay by several weeks the start of the nominating season, which many have complained is far too early.
Advocates said the amendment represented the only effective way to significantly change the nominating process; opponents cited the possibility of unintended consequences and said Iowa and New Hampshire probably would find a way around the new system.
The recommendation was discussed at sometimes-heated private dinner Friday and sparked an intense debate during yesterday's open session. Minutes before the vote, Price was forced to warn the commission that members risked overturning nearly a year of deliberation and debate. "The only realistic path to change is the one we have marked out," he said.
Echaveste considered but then rejected withdrawing the amendment. As supporters lobbied wavering commissioners, Herman and Price pushed for a quick vote. In the end the amendment was defeated 18 to 9. "We came close to really blowing up the thing," said Debbie Dingell, the other Michigan commissioner.
Under the plan approved yesterday, Iowa's caucuses probably would be held Jan. 14, 2008, one week earlier than in 2004. One or two more caucuses would be conducted a few days later. The plan envisions New Hampshire holding its primary on Jan. 22, 2008, with one or two more primaries perhaps a week after that.
That could result in six contests over 15 days in early 2008.
Price said the commission had taken steps to resolve complaints that the nominating process is too front-loaded, in effect selecting a nominee before most voters have had the chance to participate in the selection.
The commission urged the adoption of a system that would provide additional Democratic National Convention delegates to states that have contests later in the spring, with those holding the latest events receiving the most additional delegates.
In addition, the commission recommended that no more than five states be allowed to hold contests within any single week. That would eliminate "Super Tuesday," the first Tuesday in March, when 10 states voted in 2004.