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March 23, 2004

THE NEXT couple of months are expected to be critical, perhaps even decisive in the election battle between President Bush and his presumptive Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry. Yet it's a safe bet that few Americans other than professional political junkies are paying much attention.

This is the period when the candidates are working hard to define the contest on the most favorable terms for their respective campaigns. Is it to be a referendum on Mr. Bush and his first term in office? Or is Mr. Kerry's fitness as a successor the key question at issue?

Trouble is, the candidates have reached this stage at least three months too soon to assure maximum voter involvement in the process. Thanks to a front-loaded primary schedule, Mr. Kerry became the near-certain Democratic choice in February before all but a handful of states had cast their ballots. Even now, voters in 13 states are still waiting their turn to vote in primaries scheduled into June. So the majority of voters were effectively disenfranchised in the selection of a nominee.

Doubtless there are many better ways to choose presidential nominees that could be put in place in time for the 2008 contest. But here's a good one proposed by Bill Brock, a former Tennessee senator and chairman of the Republican National Committee, who is now based in Maryland: Delay the start of the first primaries from January to March 1, then allow the states to schedule their voting in groups of four. The littlest states would go first and the campaign would unfold in a progression so that the largest, most populous states weigh in last, sometime in June. It would be mathematically impossible to lock up the nomination before then.

Mr. Brock's proposal may not necessarily prolong the primary competition, but it would at least delay the emergence of a winner until closer to the party conventions, when the nominees are showcased.

Leaders of both parties should put the 2004 slugfest aside long enough to appoint a joint committee charged with recommending a redesign of the primary calendar that could be adopted at the conventions this summer before anyone knows which party will have the incumbent in 2008.

Time will tell whether the current schedule serves the Democrats as they hope. But it certainly doesn't serve democracy.

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