Campaigning for the 2008 presidential election started earlier than any on record. And now it looks like voting could actually begin in 2007, as states continue to maneuver to be the earliest to hold nominating contests.
If that prospect doesn't thrill voters, the uncertainly has the candidates even more upset.
An election calendar that had appeared settled was jolted Thursday when South Carolina Republican officials announced that they would move up their primary from early February to Jan. 19. That, in turn, will probably set off a chain reaction of rescheduled contests as Iowa and New Hampshire take steps to ensure that they continue to attract the bulk of candidate time -- and money -- in the campaign's first phase.
In one scenario floated Thursday, the New Hampshire primary could be set for Jan. 8 (the likely date had been Jan. 22). That could push the Iowa caucuses into December (the working date had been Jan. 14).
All the fluidity is proving frustrating to the presidential candidates, who want the dates fixed so they can set their itineraries and decide when to buy advertising. And the ever-changingcalendar is renewing criticismof a campaign process that has become more prolonged and, in the eyes of many, increasingly chaotic.
"If we shove Iowa into December, it becomes almost farcical," said Bill Carrick, a national Democratic political consultant based in Los Angeles. "If we don't fix this, by the 2012 presidential election we're going to have the first caucus by the Fourth of July of the year before."
Mark McKinnon, an advisor to GOP presidential contender Sen. John McCain of Arizona, expressed concern about forcing voters to trudge to the polls earlier than expected -- especially if the Iowa caucuses end up in December.
"They want to be thinking about buying Christmas presents -- not casting votes," McKinnon said.
South Carolina Republican officials, defending their decision, said they wanted to protect their first-in-the-South status, which Florida had threatened when its lawmakers voted recently to schedule its primary for Jan. 29. Florida aimed to leapfrog the raft of states, including California, with primaries on Feb. 5.
So now, rather than have their election a few days after Florida's, South Carolina Republicans plan to vote 10 days earlier. (South Carolina Democrats did not join the stampede, and might not.)
Florida and South Carolina could face sanctions from the national political parties, which have tried to impose some discipline to a disorganized scheduling process. Each state could lose delegates to the national nominating conventions.
But South Carolina doesn't seem worried.
"We'll deal with the punishment later," state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson told reporters.
That attitude underscores a new reality: Methodically compiling delegate support is not the prize it once was. More important in today's presidential race is momentum, political strategists said.
By winning key states that vote early, the thinking goes, candidates are better positioned to clear the field of rivals and easily win states that vote later.
"The new model is momentum, which means the only states with a voice are the early ones: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida. . . ." said Mike Murphy, a Republican political consultant who has worked on several presidential campaigns. "People say to me, 'How do you win the California primary? Do you target the Inland Empire?' And I say, 'No. You win New Hampshire and Florida.' "
For candidates, the redrawn calendar is maddening.
McKinnon, the McCain advisor, said: "It's creating a bit of strategic chaos for the candidates. It's much easier to plan when there's some predictability. Things aren't nailed down, so you can have a strategy in place three months ago that may be out of alignment with how the calendar stacks up."
Political analysts differ on who stands to win or lose under the altered timetable. Carrick said that former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has led in national polls in the Republican race, may come to regret his emphasis on Florida, given South Carolina's new move.
He described Giuliani's strategy as campaigning hard in Florida "somewhat to the exclusion of South Carolina" -- the idea being to "use Florida to neutralize the impact of South Carolina."
Said Carrick: "That doesn't look like such a good decision now."
An aide to Giuliani said the calendar didn't matter.
"Voters across the country are looking for a strong leader like Rudy Giuliani who is a proven problem-solver. That doesn't change because the calendar changes," said Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the candidate.
The key primaries and caucuses have been coming earlier each presidential cycle.
Until 1968, New Hampshire held its primary on the second Tuesday in March.
In 1976, the state moved the contest into February.
In 2004, the vote occurred Jan. 27.
The front-loading of the process also is a relatively new phenomenon.
For several decades, the elections littered the calendar throughout the winter and spring.
In 1972, Democrat George McGovern had not locked up his party's nomination until he won the California primary in early June.
Grouping the contests early in the year began in earnest in 1984, but even that year, the Democratic race between Walter F. Mondale and Gary Hart lasted several months.
Since then, competitive races in each party have been ending sooner and sooner.
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush sealed their nomination victories in early March. In 2004, it became clear in February that John F. Kerry would capture the Democrats' nod.
In the current campaign, it may be months before the final calendar is known.
New Hampshire law requires the state to set its primary seven days before any other state conducts a similar contest. Another complication: New Hampshire's tradition has been to hold its primary on a Tuesday.
Given South Carolina's move, that would suggest the Jan. 8 primary date in New Hampshire.
Iowa is required by its state law to hold its caucuses eight days before any other nomination contest. So if New Hampshire's election is Jan. 8, the Iowa caucuses would be pushed into December.
"For sure, it could be in 2007," Iowa GOP Chairman Ray Hoffmann said of the state's Republican caucus.
There remains yet another moving part: The Michigan Legislature is considering scheduling its presidential nominating process for January.
As a result, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner said Thursday that he would wait to see what Michigan did before he would commit his state to a specific primary date.