Primarily concerned

July 31, 2006

National Democrats took a small step last week toward opening their presidential nominating process to a broader cross-section of voters. As a result, the percentage of party members actually having an impact on the choice of a nominee may rise from tiny to something larger than that, and will almost certainly be a bit more diverse.

Nevada, with its booming population heavily laced with Hispanics, and South Carolina, where at least one-fourth of the residents are black, have been given early berths in the party's presidential primary calendar.

Party officials are trying to diminish the role overwhelmingly white and homogeneous Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire have played over the past few decades in effectively awarding presidential nominations long before most primary ballots are cast.

Politically, it was a bold move to stand up to New Hampshire officials, who jealously guard their first-in-the-nation primary status as a mainstay of the local economy. As a practical matter, though, a far more ambitious, bipartisan overhaul of the primary calendar will be required before the nominating process is truly accessible to all party members.

The primary season remains far too long. In fact, it will engage even earlier under the Democrats' new plan, which opens with Iowa caucuses Jan. 14 and continues with caucuses in Nevada a few days later. New Hampshire's primary then falls a few days after that, and the South Carolina primary concludes the quartet of early contests before month's end.

Assuming the Republicans adopt a similar schedule, a full-scale presidential campaign could be under way by March - and dragging tediously along for another eight months.

Under a far better plan advanced a few years back by a bipartisan group, the primaries wouldn't even begin until March, and the schedule would rotate, allowing states or regions to take turns going first so that no one would be left out of the choice - as Maryland has been since at least 1976.

The Democrats' move doesn't begin to approach the major overhaul required. But the potential breakup of the Iowa/New Hampshire monopoly bodes well for more meaningful change in the future.

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