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Primary Madness

January 17, 2002

California, already holding primary elections in March to select nominees for November, may soon be in the even more bizarre position of holding its primary elections in February. State officials should demand that the Democratic National Committee reject a plan to make the party's presidential primaries even earlier than they now are held. The committee's vote is scheduled Friday in Washington.

California's primary used to be in June. But the state moved it to late March and then early March to regain clout in choosing the parties' presidential nominees. Now the Democrats (each party gets to make its own presidential primary rules) want to push the presidential season even earlier, to Jan. 19, 2004, for the Iowa caucuses and Jan. 27 for the New Hampshire primary, traditionally the nation's first. That means other states could schedule their primaries as early as Feb. 3. Republicans probably would be forced to do the same.

California need not join the rush to early February, but it previously followed the pack. Many states hold separate primaries in presidential election years, which gets rid of the problem of 10-month state and local campaigns. New York, for instance, held its latest presidential primary in March and its primary for the Legislature, Congress and state offices in September.

California resisted dual primaries because of the extra cost, and the Legislature compounded the problem by moving primaries to March in non-presidential years. That's why state and congressional nominees will be picked March 5, after which all Californians will endure eight months of campaigning.

Separating the California primaries should be seriously considered, though it wouldn't do anything to cure the mania of national Democratic leaders for ever-earlier balloting. They claim that Republicans grabbed voter attention during a month of battle between George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain in Delaware, South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan primaries. The Democrats had no primaries during that period following the New Hampshire voting and don't want to be upstaged again, especially with an incumbent president running.

Both parties should understand that pushing primaries into January is no answer.

Every campaign has its own dynamic. Certainly the entire 2000 Democratic primary campaign didn't generate much excitement. If the parties want to attract voters they will begin by making presidential campaigns shorter, not longer. In the meantime, California should go its own way and separate the state primary.

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