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Brisk Primary Season Leaves Voters Out in the Cold

Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry may well prove the Democrats’ strongest nominee against President Bush. But there’s no way to tell from the hurried and shallow primary campaign that the Democrats have fallen into.

The nomination season’s compressed calendar and the choices made by the candidates themselves have combined since the Iowa caucuses last month to drain almost all deliberation and debate from the Democratic contest.

Because the schedule is so condensed, voters in each new state are being denied the time to make independent judgments on the candidates. Because the leading contenders have failed to effectively engage Kerry, voters are being denied even a clear sense of the choices available to them.

The result is a campaign that suddenly isn’t about much of anything, except, perhaps, itself.

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Without much genuine debate between the candidates, or more than a few days to evaluate them, voters with approaching primaries or caucuses appear to be influenced most by the results in the states that preceded them.

It’s common to find voters who say they support Kerry because his victories over the other Democrats in earlier contests have persuaded them he will be the strongest candidate against Bush. In other words, the principal source of Kerry’s momentum ... is his momentum.

This denatured process isn’t serving the party or the voters; though it provides obvious short-term benefits for Kerry, it probably isn’t in his long-term interest, either.

All should prefer a contest that tests the new front-runner the way the preliminary skirmishing in Iowa exposed the weaknesses of the former front-runner, Howard Dean.

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But such a careful assessment isn’t possible under the nomination calendar the Democratic National Committee encouraged this year by eliminating 2000’s prohibition on states holding primaries within five weeks of New Hampshire.

Dean’s flaws emerged through months of sustained engagement with the other candidates.

Now the contest is racing through so many states so quickly that voters barely have time for a fleeting glance at the field, much less a genuine judgment about their merits.

From the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27 through Tuesday, 12 states in all corners of the country will have voted in 14 days. That concentration has presented the remaining contenders with a ridiculous choice.

Either they can race from tarmac to tarmac, brushing through all of the states, or they can focus on selected states at the cost of entirely abandoning others.

Kerry, as the race’s leader, has chosen the first strategy. He’s appearing in all of the states voting this month, but usually for visits so brief it sometimes appears he’s running from a bill collector.

His one-day visit to Michigan on Friday, the day before his victory there, was his first stop in the state in more than three months. On Saturday, Kerry visited Tennessee, which votes Tuesday, for the first time since April.

Obviously, this doesn’t leave much time for voters or the local media to poke and prod the candidate. It’s likely Kerry will never take a question from a voter in Tennessee before Tuesday’s primary -- much less sit down with community groups or expose himself to the unfiltered roar of public opinion by appearing on a talk radio show.

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Believe it or not, presidential candidates routinely did those things as recently as 20 years ago, when the primaries stretched from February to June. Under that calendar, candidates might spend as much as two weeks camped out in a big state like New York or California -- debating, fencing with local reporters and testing their tolerance for the native cuisine.

Now a candidate usually can devote more than two days to a state only by writing off other states. That’s what Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark have done in the last week. Each has camped out in Virginia and Tennessee, admirably meeting with voters not only in big cities but also in small towns. But that attention has come at the price of ignoring the states that voted this weekend: Michigan, Washington and Maine.

Not surprisingly, many voters don’t know very much about the candidates. As of early this month, less than half the voters in states that had contests following the seven on Feb. 3 knew that Dean opposed the war in Iraq, according to polls by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Election Survey. Just one-third of voters in those states said they knew enough to make an informed choice among the Democratic contenders.

The candidates chasing Kerry have compounded the problem by generally failing to draw sharp lines of distinction with him.

Dean is trying to portray Kerry as ineffective and hypocritical, but the former Vermont governor has so undermined his credibility that few people seem to be listening. Clark waited until last week to begin making a case against the front-runner, adopting the Dean argument that Kerry backed Bush initiatives he now criticizes. And Edwards has been so reluctant to clarify his differences with Kerry that prominent Democrats openly speculate that he is really running for vice president.

In the near-term, all of this has been great for Kerry. But it ought to worry his fans as much as his critics that he’s surfing toward the nomination on a wave of momentum without a serious test. Can Kerry take a punch and get up the way Bill Clinton did in 1992? Can Kerry defend the most liberal aspects of his voting record?

The primaries are supposed to answer questions like that. This year, it’s entirely possible that when this superficial contest for the Democratic nomination is settled, the only answer will be another question: Who knows?

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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