- The Washington Times - Monday, June 3, 2002

The GOP's decision to hold its 2004 presidential nominating convention on Labor Day weekend has put the Democrats in a box with no easy exits.
By beginning its convention Aug. 30 and running it into Labor Day week the traditional kickoff time for the general election Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot has outfoxed the Democrats on several key fronts. The Democratic nominee could end up waiting weeks, if not months, longer for federal matching funds. Moreover, the move could give President Bush a much bigger media spotlight, sending him into the general election with a surge of political momentum, while the Democrats' earlier convention will have been a distant memory.
Although it may seem too early to talk about presidential conventions, planning these national party rituals has been going on for months at the White House, the RNC, and the Democratic National Committee where Chairman Terry McAuliffe has been forced to tear up his scheduling strategy and start over. Here's the story: Mr. McAuliffe was blindsided by the RNC's move, but should not have been. On April 25, 2001, he wrote to then-RNC Chairman James Gilmore, acknowledging that "tradition dictates that the party in the White House holds their convention after the challenging party. This letter will serve as official notice that the DNC will hold its nominating convention the week of July 18, 2004."
Usually the conventions are held between July and August, though some have been later. But as White House and GOP strategists studied the calendar, the front-loaded primary system that picks nominees in March, and the financial trouble this can cause Mr. Bush's challenger, they saw an opportunity to get the jump on the Democrats and look like reformers in the process by shortening the election timeframe.
First the calendar: If the Democrats stick with their original July 18 date, or move it deeper into the summer, they would be ceding all of the media attention that Mr. Bush would get on the Labor Day curtain-raiser for the elections. "Our convention would be a distant memory by then," a senior Democratic Party adviser told me.
Mr. McAuliffe is considering going head-to-head on Labor Day weekend with the GOP's convention, but that would be a high-stakes gamble. The news media would have to split its resources and its broadcasting time between the two events. And Mr. Bush and his Cabinet have the potential to make big news, dominating media coverage.
Then there is the money angle: The new campaign-finance law gives Mr. Bush a huge advantage over his rivals. The Democrats want to hold their presidential primaries earlier. This means spending campaign money earlier and probably picking their nominee earlier, perhaps as soon as March (as happened with Al Gore in 2000).
Federal matching funds for the general election are not turned over to the nominee of the party until officially chosen by the convention. That could mean months without adequate financing in the spring and summer seasons for Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent. "We've got to figure out how to keep our candidate financially afloat during this period," a Democratic official told me.
Mr. Bush, on the other hand, is not expected to have any primary challenger and will spend very little in the primary season. Furthermore, with the campaign-finance law doubling the amount of hard money he can solicit to $2,000 per contribution, he could easily raise $125 million or more and forgo federal matching funds entirely.
In other words, Mr. Bush is going to have plenty of money to maintain a very visible paid ad campaign during this period, while the prospective Democratic nominee may have to depend on free air time from the news media until he is nominated and gets his federal check.
Mr. McAuliffe called a pow-wow of Democratic officials and party strategists a week ago that was held in House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt's offices. Representatives of all the party's presidential hopefuls were there, except for Al Gore, who spoke to Mr. McAuliffe privately by phone a few days later. Another meeting will be held this week to go over their options.
In a letter to the mayors of the four cities that are being considered for the Democratic Convention, Mr. McAulifffe picked five possible dates for the 2004 event: the weeks of July 19, July 26, Aug. 2, Aug. 30 and Sept. 6. The earlier weeks seem out of the question, but there is support in the party's councils for going head-to-head with the GOP on Labor Day weekend.
Mr. McAuliffe said he will not reach a decision until after this fall's elections. But it is clear the Democrats are struggling to find a way out of the box that Mr. Bush's political operatives have put them in. "There is no easy option," a frustrated Democratic strategist said.

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