- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

The Democrats this week will approve a plan to hold their party primaries earlier in 2004, a move that could further shorten the presidential nominating process and give potential candidates like former Vice President Al Gore a major advantage over lesser-known rivals.

The plan pushed by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, which is expected to be approved Saturday at the DNC's three-day winter meeting here in the District, would allow state parties to hold their primaries as early as Feb. 3. But Iowa and New Hampshire's special status as the first two candidate-selection contests in the country would be preserved.

The effect of the DNC's new presidential primary rules would be to hold the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in January and encourage the other states to move up their primary dates to have more influence over who will be their party's nominees.

It also would mean that the presidential hopefuls would begin their campaigns much earlier as well, with the candidates likely campaigning and perhaps running ads in the fall and winter of 2003, if not before.

Under the plan, Iowa would hold its caucuses on Jan. 19, 2004, and New Hampshire's primary would take place on Jan. 27. DNC officials expect that other states then will move their caucus and primary dates earlier and thus further compress the time frame in which presidential candidates are picked.

The Democratic plan is in response to the Republicans, who moved up many of their biggest state primaries in 2000, drawing much more media attention in the first month of the nominating process, while the Democratic contest was all but eclipsed.

"The last time we had the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, we did not have another primary for about a month. So the thrust of the plan is to make sure that the Republicans do not have the early primary spotlight all to themselves. It worked to their advantage," said Ohio Democratic Chairman David Leland.

When Sen. John McCain of Arizona beat Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary in 2000, the fight moved on to South Carolina and Michigan, states that had moved up their primaries to have an earlier role in picking the nominee.

The Bush-McCain contest diverted media attention away from Sen. Bill Bradley's struggle to overtake Mr. Gore. The New Jersey Democrat's campaign eventually collapsed from lack of funds.

A total of 26 primaries now are held in March, including about two dozen on Super Tuesday, when some of the biggest electoral states California, New York and Ohio deliver the lion's share of delegates.

Another 13 contests come a day later in major delegate-rich states like Michigan, Florida, Arizona, Texas and Illinois, when a front-runner can virtually seal the nomination. That was what happened to Mr. Bush, who quickly clinched the nomination by mid-March.

Mr. McAuliffe is not necessarily enthusiastic about compressing the primary calendar, but he is telling reporters that he does not want to give the Republican Party "any advantage" in the next presidential election.

His rules change has given rise to party speculation that Mr. McAuliffe, who was Mr. Gore's fund-raiser in the 2000 campaign, is trying to help the former vice president if he decides to seek the nomination again. Others have said that earlier primaries would help Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York if she decides to run.

"There will be people who will speculate, but no one can say what effect this will have on the candidates. Sure, there is the law of unintended consequences, but the chairman's mandate is to not give any advantage to the Republicans," said Maria Cardona, the DNC's communications director.

"We're simply giving the state parties the flexibility to match the Republican schedule," she said.

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