Watch out for 2004 primary stampede

November 23, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - If you thought after last year that there wasn't anything politicians could do to make the way we pick our president any worse, you thought wrong.

Long before the Florida fiasco that threw the 2000 election into the Supreme Court, the election year was rendered a circus by virtue of the insane jamming of most of the states' presidential primaries into a few weeks in February and March.

Now it turns out that if Democratic Party leaders have their way, the primary election schedule will be even more crowded and frenzied even earlier in 2004, out of concern that the Republicans will again get more attention, as they did in 2000.

The frenetic schedule last year sent the candidates lurching frantically from one state primary to another, literally from day to day, severely taxing the candidates' finances and energies. It made a farce of a process that should be a chance for voters to take a calm and focused look at the choices facing them.

This so-called "front-loading" of the primary calendar resulted mainly from the desire of individual states to grab a share of the publicity spotlight, especially on television, that is shone on the earliest state contests for national convention delegates.

Both major parties jammed up the front of the calendar with state primaries, but the Democrats let the Republicans steal a march on them by protecting the two states that have traditionally led the parade - Iowa and New Hampshire - from the others desiring to move their primary dates forward. The Democrats in these other states were required to wait five weeks after the New Hampshire primary before holding their contests.

The Republicans, however, had no such hiatus. During those five weeks, when Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley were essentially in the dark, George W. Bush and all the other Republican candidates were in full glare of the television lights in state primaries and caucuses in Delaware, South Carolina, Michigan, Arizona and Washington state.

The veritable news coverage blackout that descended on the Democratic race was a particular blow to Mr. Bradley, who after a narrow loss to Mr. Gore in New Hampshire had no primary or caucus in which to make a comeback for five weeks. By that time he was at political death's door and soon quit the race.

But it's not out of any sympathy for Mr. Bradley that the Democratic leaders want to eliminate that five-week hold. The states that honored it in 2000 apparently are balking at doing so next time, unwilling to give up their shot at heavy news media attention the earlier contests will bring.

Beyond that, Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe has said he wants the primary season over as quickly as possible, to provide more time for the healing of primary wounds. The Democrats figure to have a hotly contested fight for the party's presidential nomination in 2004 and a tough fight against the Republican incumbent.

In 1996, though, the Republicans similarly rushed to judgment in nominating then Sen. Bob Dole in a front-loaded primary schedule, the better to prepare for their challenge to a Democratic incumbent, and lived to regret it. The Dole campaign found itself out of money and facing a long spring and summer without the wherewithal to wage an effective campaign against Bill Clinton.

Nevertheless, the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee, chaired by James Roosevelt of Massachusetts and Carol Khare of South Carolina, is poised to ask the full committee at its next meeting in January to sanction the further front-loading of the 2004 primary calendar.

What it means practically is that the still-protected Iowa Democratic caucuses and the New Hampshire primary likely will be held in early or mid-January in 2004 and the others in February instead of March, as they were last year.

An irony in all this is that the Republicans have tried to get their state parties to reverse the front-loading by offering bonus delegates to states that hold their delegate-selecting contests later in the election year, with no apparent success. So the prospect for 2004 is for an even sillier stampede to decide who will be the next contenders for the role of leader of the free world.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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