Primary schedule ‘a mess’

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Democrats and Republicans readily acknowledge they don’t like the increasing front-loading of their party primaries, but few think it will affect the chances of their leading presidential front-runners next year.

“The primary process is broken. It’s a terrible mess. It really is not fair in the way the public gets to participate in the nominating process,” said Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff under President Clinton and a veteran Democratic Party strategist.

“But putting that aside, whatever dates the states select, I think it’s not going to impact on who the front-runners are. They’ve already calculated some of the moving dates into their game plan,” Mr. Panetta said.

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley is similarly critical of the early delegate-selection contests, which he fears will give fewer voters the chance to know the candidates before they vote in the rapid-succession primaries and caucuses. By the end of February, contests will have been held in 32 states and the District.

He blames his own party as well as the Republicans for what he calls a “chaotic” process.

“The Democrats kicked this off by establishing the front-loaded system, and the Republican Party of Florida and South Carolina has gleefully jumped into the mud pile,” Mr. Buckley said.

“I don’t think it’s good for the voters, but it’s very clear that the Democrats’ calendar changes last year and now the Republican National Committee this year has caused this. I guess we reap what we sow.”

Asked if the latest calendar changes, which will move up the parties’ primaries and caucuses into early January, and possibly into December, could hurt the top Democratic contenders, Mr. Buckley said: “I don’t see that happening. … [I]t is unfortunate that the calendar will prohibit a significant number of people from being involved in the nominating process.”

The latest escalation of the front-loading process came last week when South Carolina’s Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson announced he was moving his state’s Republican primary from Feb. 2 to Jan. 19 to retain its status as the year’s first primary in the South, jumping ahead of Florida’s Jan. 29 primary

That means New Hampshire (Jan. 22), which by state law must hold its primary at least one week before any other similar contest, could hold its primary on Jan. 8. And Iowa’s Jan 14 caucuses, which by state law must be eight days ahead of everyone else, could move into December.

But the scrambling of dates in January includes just five or six states at most: Iowa, Nevada’s caucuses (Jan. 19), New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and possibly Wyoming (Jan. 22).

Front-runners in both parties already have planned and budgeted for these kickoff contests and have invested a significant amount of campaign time and organizing in the big three: Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, who is tied in Iowa with former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, leads by an average of four points in New Hampshire and maintains a big lead in Florida.

On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds substantial leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, but former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani leads in Florida.

While last week’s January primary-date changes dominated the campaign news, the really heavy action is going to take place on Feb. 5, when more than 20 states — including several large ones — will hold what is being billed as a national super primary that is expected to nail down the presidential nominations for both parties.

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