- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

RICHMOND — Virginia’s Feb. 12 primary could be a moot exercise because up to two-thirds of the states already will have held their presidential nominating contests by the second Tuesday in February.

As many as 33 states, including such electoral behemoths as New York, Texas and the biggest of them all, California, are expected to hold primaries or caucuses through Feb. 10.

State after state have leapfrogged into the first three weeks of next year’s White House nomination sweepstakes, all hoping to have more influence on the process than their late primary dates had afforded them.

That creates an unprecedented Feb. 5 bundle of 23 primaries that dwarfs the 14-state “Super Tuesday” of 1984.

It’s all in keeping with the earliest, richest start of a presidential campaign season in U.S. history.

Key candidates of both parties already have obliterated fundraising records more than 18 months ahead of the Nov. 4, 2008, election.

It’s also the first White House campaign since 1952 without an incumbent president or his vice president as a dominant, early favorite.

Top contenders from both parties, including Republicans John McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani and Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards, have begun aggressively mining Virginia for campaign contributions and organizational support.

Mr. Obama, Illinois’ junior senator, in February picked up Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s endorsement, and Mr. Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, has the backing of the state Democratic Party chairman, C. Richard Cranwell.

The last time Virginia’s primary played an important role was in the 2000 Republican contest when George W. Bush and Mr. McCain, a senator from Arizona, were in a close race, with Mr. McCain flush from a convincing victory in New Hampshire.

When then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III signed on as an early and active supporter, Mr. Bush won Virginia convincingly, and it helped him build a lead over Mr. McCain that he never relinquished.

A sparsely funded and long-shot presidential candidate himself this year, Mr. Gilmore said compressing so much of the nominating process into so little time is “unhealthy” and Virginia’s legislature should have moved its primary up a week or two.

“There is some danger here that the process has been so disrupted here that we don’t nominate anybody based on either track record or positions. It’s just who is most famous at that time, who has the best name ID and who has the most money,” Mr. Gilmore said.

Mr. Gilmore’s successor as governor and a Democratic presidential candidate himself until he dropped out in October, Mark Warner, had a similarly gloomy assessment of “front-loading” the next primary season.

“I hope Virginia will still have a chance to influence the outcome, but by front-loading all these primaries on Feb. 5, it may have the opposite reaction. Rather than diminishing the value of Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina, it may increase the value of them so that whoever comes out of those first couple will have all the momentum,” Mr. Warner said.

“I think the system’s broken,” he said.

Neither party made advancing the primary a priority this year in a legislative season dominated by the quest for the first meaningful transportation-funding reforms in 21 years.

Nor are officials of either party conceding a decisive role for Virginia in 2008.

“All that’s doing is changing the political discourse to an earlier date. We’re seeing it earlier and earlier all the time,” Mr. Cranwell said.

“My belief is it’s still going to be a ball game. I don’t know why Edwards would be hounding us for our endorsement and Obama would be hounding Governor Kaine for his endorsement if they didn’t think it would be a ball game, too,” Mr. Cranwell said.

State Republican Party spokesman Shaun Kenney also said Virginia could somehow be the final battleground for a handful of candidates.

“I think we need to step back a little. It’s 2007, and already we’re in the throes of a presidential race. There’s already record fundraising from both parties. All of this is really an unprecedented cycle,” Mr. Kenney said.

“Will Virginia miss the boat or, after the smoke has cleared, will Virginia be the deciding state? It’s probably a bit early to say,” Mr. Kenney said.

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