Is that all there is?

November 25, 2007

There are six weeks to go until the presidential primary balloting begins, then probably concludes in one frantic month or less.

At this point, it appears the states that leapfrogged their primaries to the front of the pack in hopes of gaining greater influence haven't succeeded. In fact, the Democratic nomination contest may effectively be over on the first day. Hardly a national process.

With such a large field of talented (and not so talented) candidates in both parties and no incumbent or vice president, a seesaw battle of wins and losses might have been expected - and may still happen to a limited extent on the Republican side. But when the polls close Feb. 5, more than half of primary voters in the country will have made their views known - likely leaving little to be settled by the time Maryland votes a week later, though its own primary schedule had been advanced.

Besides the impact on individual states, though, the chief reason for returning the kickoff primaries and caucuses to March is to delay the general election campaign for at least a few months. As it now stands, the two presumptive nominees may well start sparring directly with each other as soon as February. Nine months is too long to maintain a civil debate - much less voter attention.

Of course, the unexpected is to be expected in politics. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's lead in the national Democratic polls is shrinking, and the hard-to-predict Iowa caucuses could well be won by Sen. Barack Obama or former Sen. John Edwards. But either would have only days to build on that win to undercut Mrs. Clinton's strength in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. And Iowa looks like the only chance of breaking Mrs. Clinton's grasp on the nomination.

The Republican race is much more fluid and may indeed produce different victors in the first few contests. But with so many states voting on or before Feb. 5, odds are that the competition will effectively be decided by then.

And Michigan and Florida, two states that wanted so badly to vote in January that they are being sanctioned by both parties for changing their dates without permission, may still vote too late - Jan. 15 and Jan. 29, respectively - to make a difference.

The next couple of months should be wild, with polls tightening, more combative debates and a barrage of campaign ads in the states where they matter. Then, before most voters have tuned in, the races will be over.

This is a disservice to the country. Leaders of both parties should immediately start working on a better process for the next election.

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