- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

The D.C. Democratic primary in January — the first in the country — could have more influence than the party elite originally believed, political analysts say.

The Democrats who moved the primary up to Jan. 13 are still at odds with the national and local parties over the nonbinding primary, in which no delegate votes will be up for grabs. Still, members of the D.C. Democratic State Committee are worried that the primary could be a big flop owing to minuscule voter turnout.

Five of the nine presidential candidates dropped out, not wanting to break tradition and be shunned by the Democratic National Committee, whose rules will not allow any jurisdiction other than New Hampshire to hold a primary before the first Tuesday in February and asks candidates to refrain from participating in any that occur before then.

Political analyst Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, said she was forced to make a play in Washington state because rival Bill Bradley used the state as his “last stand.” Mr. Gore won with nearly 72 percent of the vote.

“It’s a tough decision for a candidate, but Delaware and Washington state both had beauty contests in 2000, and we had to dance without dancing,” Ms. Brazile said.

She said the District’s primary will be influential on other states, and that the risk taken by the four candidates on the ballot seems to be paying off.

“It’s going to be a plus for [former Vermont Gov. Howard] Dean and the three [other] candidates who decided to stay, but the other five made a strategic decision not to participate because the D.C. primary violated the rules,” she said.

But there have been presidential “beauty contests” — most notably the 2000 primary in Washington state — that were highly contested but with fewer candidates.

“Gore had a big team here in 2000 and brought in his field director from Iowa because Bradley decided to make his play in Washington,” said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the Washington state Democratic Party.

The political parties determine how delegates will be allocated in Washington state, Miss Brost said, and in 2000, the state’s Republicans and Democrats decided to choose their delegates at caucuses, rather than from the primary.

The four candidates contesting the D.C. primary are civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and Mr. Dean. And even though the D.C. primary doesn’t count in the eyes of the DNC, its exposure could be important to a struggling candidate.

Mr. Kucinich and Mrs. Moseley Braun were in town for fund raising and speaking to the local party last week. Mr. Sharpton has been in and out of town throughout the month and Mr. Dean has already been endorsed by every Democratic member of the D.C. Council.

Mr. Dean, who is leading in all this month’s national polls, was dubbed the front-runner by newspapers and television networks after being endorsed by Mr. Gore, and has a commanding lead in New Hampshire. The national strategy by the Democratic establishment seems to have opened the door for him to build on his momentum in the District.

The plan envisioned by the council in moving the primary date was for the local party to sanction it and have all the candidates participate despite party rules prohibiting any primaries or caucuses before those of New Hampshire and Iowa.

The District would have lost half of its 26 delegates at the Democratic National Convention as a penalty. That would have forced the Democratic National Committee — the top officials of the party that claims to support D.C. voting rights — to explain why it disenfranchised the city at its convention on a national stage.

But Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Wesley Clark, a retired Army general, in early November sent letters to the city’s board of elections asking to be removed from the ballot, saying they could not break national party rules.

However, all five said they would participate in the D.C. caucuses in February.

Local Democrats don’t want them, however. The Washington Times reported last month that public officials and local Democrats were outraged by the letters and denounced the candidates as “losers.”

“They didn’t have to withdraw,” Ms. Brazile said. “They could have found a way to dance without dancing the way we did in 2000, but they didn’t want to take the risk.”

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