Cutting to the front of the line

March 07, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Some things never seem to change in politics, and one of them is a good Democratic fight around this time over where and when the next presidential campaign should formally begin.

Playing defense, as usual, are Iowa, home of the first contest for national convention delegates via the caucus process, and New Hampshire, traditionally the first primary state. For years they have been in cahoots to make sure they lead the parade, which means much national publicity and money spent within their borders by the candidates, their campaigns and news organizations.

In this nominating cycle, the challengers are the District of Columbia Democrats, considering jumping ahead of Iowa's precinct caucuses planned for Jan. 19, 2004, and Michigan, thinking of holding its caucuses on the same day as the New Hampshire primary, tentatively set for Jan. 27.

Iowa law stipulates that it hold the first caucuses no matter what, and New Hampshire has one saying it will go eight days after Iowa and a week ahead of any other "similar event" elsewhere. The Iowa Democratic chairman, Gordon Fischer, and the New Hampshire party chairwoman, Kathy Sullivan, vow they'll advance their dates as necessary to stay at the head of the delegate-selecting parade.

The Democratic National Committee gives only Iowa and New Hampshire exemptions from the party's requirement that all delegate-selection processes in 2004 take place from Feb. 3 to June 8. Any state (or Washington, D.C.) that holds its process outside that window faces the loss of half of its convention delegates and all those chosen automatically as "super-delegates" -- party officials and high officeholders.

All this would be much ado about nothing except that the argument over dates can put the Democratic presidential candidates on the spot and complicate their campaign schedules. They already are being asked by Mr. Fischer and Ms. Sullivan to support with their presence the Iowa and New Hampshire first-in-the-nation traditions.

The D.C. Democrats have an understandable reason for their action that has little to do with having a decisive say in the choice of the party's nominee. The Washington party will have only 38 delegates to the convention; it wants to draw national attention to the fact that its more than 500,000 residents have no vote in Congress.

With Washington overwhelmingly Democratic and heavily African-American, the two announced black candidates, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, could be expected to run more strongly here than elsewhere.

Michigan could be another matter, as a major state with 153 convention delegates that could be critical in shaping an early trend toward the eventual party nomination. But if it votes outside the window, it will lose more than half that number.

The DNC last year held hearings on the 2004 presidential nominating calendar and rejected Michigan's bid, now pushed by Sen. Carl Levin, that would have removed that tradition. "Michigan's attitude seems to be, `We're big so get out of our way,'" says New Hampshire's Ms. Sullivan. "That seems to me not a good reason to change a process that has worked well for the candidates and the party."

Guillermo Meneses, a DNC spokesman, notes that Virginia Democrats have moved their 2004 primary to Feb. 10, and there's talk that Maryland could do the same. If Washington joined in, he says, "that would be a win-win" for the area, forming a regional event that would be a magnet for the candidates.

D.C. Democratic Party Chairman Norman Neverson says this idea "may be the perfect compromise," but it would do nothing about Michigan's ambitions to move closer to the head of the parade.

Four other states -- South Carolina, Missouri, Arizona and Delaware -- already have indicated they will hold their contests Feb. 3, Mr. Meneses says. So one thing is certain: The 2004 Democratic race, starting earlier than ever before with more states voting earlier than ever, will be a sprint to the party nomination, not a marathon.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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