States Scramble For Presidential Primary Advantage

WASHINGTON -- With states competing for the prestige, influence and revenue generated by increasingly expensive presidential campaigns, a battle over scheduling primaries to elect delegates to the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions has erupted. The one-upmanship has gotten so bad that the New Hampshire legislature, anxious to protect its traditional first-in-the-nation presidential preference poll, recently passed a bill allowing the state to hold its 2000 primary in 1999 if necessary. 

The front loading of presidential primaries has resulted in over half of the presidential caucuses and primaries being scheduled between the beginning of February and March 14, creating the most compressed presidential nominating season ever.

Political experts say the push for earlier primaries will favor candidates with large campaign warchests and essentially limit the access of voters to candidates during the time the potential nominees are most likely to listen.

"The role of the primaries as a winnowing-out process is gone, all for the sake of giving clout to states that wanted to have a bigger say. Now those states have a bigger say, but the voters do not," said Irene Natividad, head of the nonpartisan Women's Vote Project.

States are free to decide their own primary dates, but the national political parties have some say in the manner. While the Republican National Committee does not have any firm scheduling rules protecting the primacy of certain states, the Democratic National Committee does and could refuse to seat presidential convention delegates from states that violate the rules.

Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson has expressed concern over the race for earlier primaries and has appointed an advisory panel chaired by party activist Tom Sansonetti to recommend possible solutions.

However, the panel's findings will not have any effect on the 2000 primary cycle. It will report to the 2000 Republican Convention, and that body will decide what if any action to take to reform the primary process in 2004.

California sparked the race for early primary dates by advancing its contest from early June to the first Tuesday in March, ensuring that the four largest states (California, New York, Texas and Florida) will all hold their primaries on March 7 or 14.

Taking its cue from California, Ohio moved its primary to March 7, while Michigan, Virginia and Washington have all leapfrogged into February, directly challenging the supremacy of New Hampshire and Iowa.

With other states clearly no longer intimidated about moving up their primaries, the New Hampshire legislature has gone to great lengths to protect the state's status.

A bipartisan group of state political figures have urged presidential candidates to sign a pledge promising not to campaign in any state that holds its primary within seven days of New Hampshire's.

So far, eight candidates have signed the pledge: Pat Buchanan, George W. Bush, Bill Bradley, Elizabeth Dole, Al Gore, John Kasich, John McCain and Bob Smith. Five others have refused to sign: Lamar Alexander, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Dan Quayle.

"The state's efforts to maintain its influence and position are in danger of becoming absurd," said Dartmouth College political science professor Dean Spiliotes.

Supporters of the move say that the nation's first primary is worth millions of dollars in revenue as politicians and journalists crowd the state's hotels and restaurants. They also argue that the state's primacy has political merit, since New Hampshire is one of the few places in the nation where White House wannabees are forced to spend time meeting with individual voters, rather than inundating the airwaves with largely negative campaign ads.

The move for earlier primaries appears to be driven in part by political alliances between some governors and potential candidates. Virginia, for instance, scheduled its first presidential primary in a decade for February 29, putting it fifth in line among the states.

Critics point to a potential political interest on the part of Gov.Jim Gilmore, who strongly advocated the move. He has endorsed Texas Gov. Bush, who has publicly encouraged states to hold primaries and caucuses as early as possible.

Political observers say the front-running Bush hopes to convert his early momentum into a quick and uncontroversial capturing of the GOP nomination.

Not all states have met with success in their efforts to move up their primaries, though.

New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman has run into trouble by waffling over the state's primary date. Currently scheduled for June 6, New Jersey's primary is one of the last four in the nation. By then, the presidential nominations are usually forgone conclusions.

Though previously opposed to the idea, Whitman now favors a switch from June to March, hoping to increase New Jersey's influence in national politics.

The plan isn't likely to pass, however, as county officials fear an earlier primary would create lengthy and costly political campaign seasons for local officials. A plan to hold separate primaries for local and national offices has faltered over an estimated $9 million price tag.

By keeping the status quo, said a Whitman spokesman, "we would be as relevant as someone's appendix."

Utah officials were dealt a blow in their aspirations to create a Western States Primary, in which eight Rocky Mountain states would hold their primaries on March 10. Only Utah, Colorado and Wyoming adopted the date.

"We wanted moreno doubt about it. But three states is three times better than standing alone as a state," said Vicki Varela, press secretary for Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.

Politicians in the western states had hoped sandwiching their primary between the March 7 California and New England primaries and the Super Tuesday primaries of the following weekwould bolster the region's nominating clout and energize voters in their states.

Utah officials remain optimistic about the primary in future years, but acknowledge that the financial concerns and political bickering that kept other states out of the primary will likely continue to be a concern.

Idaho and Montana legislators had expressed interest in a regional primary, but eventually abandoned the plan based on cost. Nevada's decision was hampered by politics within the statehouse and Arizona opted out because of ambivalence on the part of Arizona Sen.John McCain, a Republican presidential hopeful. McCain eventually endorsed the idea, but by then it was too late, Varela said.

While Louisiana has not yet set its primary date, state officials are pushing to leap ahead of New Hampshire and Iowa both chronologically and technologically by setting a January 29 date that would include Internet voting.

Details have not been fully worked out, but an Internet firm called Vote.Here.net is working on a proposal. The idea is far from reality, however, and proponents face the task of overcoming both internal opposition and pressure from national party officials.

"My take on this is www.bad-idea.com (not an actual link). Maybe I'm just a stick in the mud, but I like the old fashioned way and I'm not sure we're ready for this," state senator Jay Dardenne told the Associated Press.