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DNC Moves to Hasten Primary Process in '04


WASHINGTON — The race for the next Democratic presidential nomination would likely begin--and end--earlier than ever under new rules a key party committee approved Saturday.

The change, being orchestrated by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, would further compress the presidential primary calendar and could result in Democrats settling on their next nominee as early as February 2004. That would require candidates to begin seriously organizing their campaigns almost immediately after the 2002 midterm elections--only a year from now.

Republicans also may be affected by the change.

McAuliffe's aim is to avoid a lengthy and potentially bitter nomination battle and quickly unify the party for what could be a difficult 2004 general election campaign against President Bush. "We can't be going through the spring with our guys killing each other," McAuliffe said in an interview.

But the plan is likely to inspire new complaints from some election experts who maintain that the continued "front-loading" of the primary calendar has produced a hurried process that denies voters the opportunity to make a reasoned judgment and tilts the field toward the best-known, best-financed contenders.

"Front-loading just makes the process that much less rational, thoughtful, deliberative," says William G. Mayer, a Northeastern University political scientist in Boston and author of the recent book "In Pursuit of the White House 2000: How We Choose Our Presidential Nominees."

McAuliffe's maneuver involves the party rules governing when states can hold presidential primaries and caucuses--the so-called delegate selection "window."

Both parties long have given Iowa and New Hampshire permission to operate outside the window and hold the nation's first caucus and primary, respectively. Last year, Iowa held its caucus Jan. 24; New Hampshire had its primary Feb. 1.

But the DNC, looking to slow the nomination process, barred other states in 2000 from selecting their delegates until March 7--five weeks after the New Hampshire primary.

Under the McAuliffe plan, Iowa and New Hampshire still would hold the first contests, but the buffer period for other states would be eliminated and the additional primaries and caucuses could begin as soon as Feb. 3, 2004.

That almost certainly would cause Iowa and New Hampshire to preserve their first-in-the-nation status by moving up their contests into mid- or early January 2004.

The plan would also likely provoke a stampede by other states to move their primaries into early February to maximize their influence. In 2000, 11 states--including California, New York and Ohio--held their contests March 7, the first date allowed under the rules. Nine other states scheduled their primaries between March 10 and March 14--though that proved academic when former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley conceded the race March 9 to then-Vice President Al Gore.

McAuliffe predicts that, under his proposed rule change, the nomination contest likely would be settled by the end of February 2004. But if states follow the 2000 pattern, the race could well end by early in the month.

The rule change was approved Saturday without dissent on a voice vote by the Democrats' Rules and Bylaws Committee but must be passed in January by the full DNC. Such approval is likely--recommendations by the rules panel usually are adopted.

Technically, the change would not apply to Republicans. But the GOP's schedule could be altered because most states hold primaries for both parties on the same day.

McAuliffe says he developed his plan without consulting potential 2004 Democratic presidential contenders--a list that includes Gore, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. Indeed, such a rule change may be possible only because there is not yet a clear front-runner exerting effective control over the DNC.

The change would continue a two-decade trend toward front-loading the primary calendar.

In 1976, Democrats didn't select a majority of their convention delegates until 11 weeks after the first contest in Iowa; by 1996, the party selected a majority of delegates just four weeks after the first contest. The buffer period adopted in 2000 slightly reversed that trend.

This accelerated process has helped the best-known and best-financed contenders win their party's nod. Since 1984, in the Democrat and Republican parties, the candidate who raised the most money the year before the primaries has won nomination every time.

Two principal factors have driven this acceleration of the nomination process: a desire by states to increase their influence by elbowing closer to the front of the line and a belief by national party leaders that settling the nomination earlier improves their candidate's prospects in the general election.

The leaders argue that quickly determining the nominee denies challengers weeks of media attention to make a negative case against the front-runner. But Mayer, the political scientist, said that benefit can be outweighed by the risk of a process that ends so quickly that it doesn't provide an accurate picture of a nominee's real strengths and weaknesses.

"I've always felt that the advantages to the party in trying to get a nice, undivisive nomination process are far outweighed by the advantages of making sure you have a decent candidate in the first place."

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