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Democrats May Shake Up Early Presidential Votes

Times Staff Writer

It’s more than two years before the next Iowa caucuses, but the first meaningful votes in the 2008 Democratic presidential race will be cast this week.

On Saturday, a Democratic commission will decide whether to challenge the dominant role that Iowa and New Hampshire play in determining the party’s presidential nominee. The panel is strongly leaning toward a plan aimed at diluting those states’ influence by authorizing other contests in between Iowa’s caucuses, which start the nomination race, and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

Such a change could increase the influence of blacks and Latinos, who cast few votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, in the Democratic presidential race. And it would allow Democrats from other regions, most likely the South and Southwest, to join Iowa and New Hampshire in winnowing the field of contenders.

Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), the commission’s co-chairman, said the panel was “fully appreciative of the value” of close contact between voters and candidates “and of the tradition Iowa and New Hampshire has developed in that area.”

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But, he said, “we have a second goal ... which is to have an early [nominating] season that attracts wider participation from a wider range of constituencies.”

The proposal inevitably has provoked furious resistance in New Hampshire, whose state law requires it to hold its primary seven days before any “similar election.”

William Gardner, New Hampshire secretary of state, said he was ready to advance the date of the state’s primary to preserve its position at the front of the line. “We are going to do whatever we have to do to maintain and preserve what New Hampshire has had,” he said.

States have the authority to set the dates for their primaries and caucuses. But the national political parties can penalize them -- for instance, by reducing their representation at the presidential nominating conventions -- if they schedule their votes outside the calendar set by party leaders.

The privileged positions of Iowa and New Hampshire have long provoked resentment from Democrats elsewhere. Many complain that they give the two states disproportionate influence; victories by then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 in each state effectively settled those races.

“No two states should have a monopoly on the first primary and caucus,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. “A lot of other states have issues that are important to them, and ought to have an opportunity to present those issues to the candidates.”

The other principal impetus for change has been complaints that the current system marginalizes black and Latino voters, both key Democratic constituencies.

Non-Latino whites cast nearly 95% of the vote in the last New Hampshire Democratic primary, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll. And the Iowa caucuses are so overwhelmingly white that polls in 2004 didn’t even ask the race of attendees.

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The implications for Republicans of the possible change by Democrats remain unclear. Party rules bar states from selecting delegates before the first Tuesday in February. And under those rules, the GOP’s nomination calendar cannot be changed until the next national convention -- which will be after the 2008 primaries and caucuses.

If states hold Republican contests before the first Tuesday in February, the party can strip them of half of their convention delegates. In 2004, the party did not impose that sanction when Iowa and New Hampshire scheduled contests in January.

But if the Democrats change their nominating calendar, Republicans in several states might move their contests into January so they can vote on the same day. And observers say national party leaders might be compelled to act if more states violate the GOP’s rules.

In the past, Iowa and New Hampshire have thwarted other states trying to muscle into the front of the nomination process. But this may be the most serious threat the two states have faced, because the change is being advanced by a 40-member commission created by the Democratic National Committee.

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“This is a different order of magnitude than states quarreling with each other,” said Dante J. Scala, a political scientist at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire and author of “Stormy Weather,” a book on the state’s primary.

Levin, a commission member, has pushed for the most radical change: a system that would rotate the first caucuses and first primary among half a dozen states. The commission seems unlikely to go that far.

But several sources familiar with its deliberations said the panel was strongly leaning toward a proposal that would force Iowa and New Hampshire to share the opening limelight.

According to the sources, all of whom requested anonymity when discussing the commission’s deliberations, the panel would preserve Iowa’s role as the first caucuses and New Hampshire’s as the first primary, but recommend that the party allow two to four states to hold caucuses between those contests. That could diminish the two states’ influence by compelling candidates to spend time elsewhere and by giving campaigns alternative opportunities to generate momentum.

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Caucuses require voters to attend lengthy meetings in limited locations, and they attract mainly party activists. Primaries follow the rules of general elections, with voting at a range of polling places.

The commission’s proposal would not take effect unless approved by the full DNC, which expects to consider the matter at an April meeting in New Orleans.

Reform advocates have pushed for authorizing caucuses, not primaries, as the new contests because they hoped that might soften opposition in New Hampshire.

But that hope has been dashed as the state’s officials -- from Democratic Gov. John Lynch on down -- have blasted the proposal.

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The New Hampshire Democratic Party has offered an alternative, suggesting that two contests from racially diverse states be held immediately after its primary. But those pushing to reshape the calendar say that approach would only increase New Hampshire’s influence because its winner would ride such a powerful wave of momentum into those other states.

California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, a commission member, said the saber-rattling from New Hampshire was unlikely to deter the group from acting.

“All of the [commission’s] internal discussions have been about how do we create a more diverse and competitive primary process so we are not stuck with the same process all over again,” he said.


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