The trend toward a drastically shortened presidential nomination season favors the rich and famous while excluding the voices of ordinary Americans, some Republicans say.
"I'm very much opposed to the front-loaded primary system," says former Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken. "Had it been in effect in 1976, Ronald Reagan never would have been able to make a strong comeback, almost defeating Gerald Ford in the primary. And Reagan probably would not have gotten the nomination in 1980 without that strong 1976 showing."
Whether the accelerated schedule caused by states elbowing each other to the front of the primary line ultimately will make a difference in the quality of the presidential nominees remains to be seen. However, many Republicans express a fondness for the protracted campaign season of yore when presidential candidates sometimes battled for the nomination into May or June of the election year.
Former Reagan aide Gary Bauer shares the view of many political professionals who say the chief beneficiaries of the hurry-up primary schedule are the wealthy, the well-known and the well-connected: Hollywood and Wall Street are stomping all over Main Street.
"Front-loading the primaries is a terrible negative for the conservative grass roots of the GOP," said Mr. Bauer, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and is chairman of the Campaign for Working Families. "It virtually guarantees that the candidate who can raise money early ... the establishment candidate or the independently wealthy, will prevail. Conservative grass-roots rebellions will be harder, if not impossible, to put together."
States are moving up their primaries in a quest to be players in the process instead of irrelevant afterthoughts and to reap a share of the publicity and economic benefits that go along with an early slot in the schedule.
Florida Republican Party spokesman Jeff Sadosky says he has seen those benefits since Florida moved its primary, previously held in March, up to Jan. 29.
"Candidates are spending more time in the state than ever before, and that trend is bound to continue through the primary," Mr. Sadosky said. "And the more candidates are in Florida, the more our state's unique issues are addressed on a national level."
The early primary urge is bipartisan and bicoastal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California Republican, and Gov. Eliot Spitzer, New York Democrat, have signed bills to move presidential primaries in their delegate-rich states to early February.
February once marked the start of a six-month process for selecting delegates to the party nominating conventions. Yet in the 2008 campaign, nearly 1,600 delegates to the Republican National Convention will have been chosen by Feb. 14 a number far exceeding the estimated majority of 1,259 needed to win the Republican nomination.
The early events traditionally were in small states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina where the economic benefits had more impact than they would in such big states as California, New York, Texas and Florida. Yet next year, all these states and more will have held caucuses or primaries by the first Tuesday in February.
"From where I sit, I would think it is an economic benefit to states to be in the first tier," says Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican. "They benefit from TV money, dollars in the community, national press and publicity. It also drives voter awareness and participation at both a grass-roots and net-roots level. People like the opportunity to meet the candidates."
Populist-minded conservatives complain that shorter primary seasons and the early scheduling of primaries in large states where campaigning is more expensive mean that candidates have to raise more money more quickly.
"Front-loading the process does have a tendency to serve those with early cash, well-known names and personal wealth," says Mrs. Blackburn. "They get out of the gate a little faster."
Mr. Pauken says compressing the primaries plays into the hands of the "big money candidates who can compete in all these races and penalizes conservatives who don't have the big bucks to compete."
Conservatives also say the early primary schedule necessarily followed by an extended general election campaign is boring to death to an already restless electorate.
"The problem with the front-loading is that the nominee is decided very early in the cycle and people tend to lose interest prior to election day," Mrs. Blackburn says. "I personally think the public is well served by having the time to get to know a candidate's philosophy of life and politics. Engaging in the process serves both the public and the candidate well."
Disputing party officials who say the big states must move up their contests to stay relevant, Mr. Pauken says the shift only "diminishes the influence of states like Texas, which once played a significant role in the process with its May primary, as did California with its June primary. It encourages a stampede mentality better get on the train now before it's too late."
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