CHICAGO — Seeking to broaden the party's nominating process, Democratic leaders voted Saturday to add Nevada and South Carolina to the opening rounds of the 2008 presidential contest.
The move could prove significant by introducing new voices and issues into the race for the White House -- but only if Democrats choose to seriously campaign in the two added states.
Iowa and New Hampshire -- host of the first caucus and primary, respectively -- have long dominated the early balloting, and many of the Democrats' 2008 prospects have opposed changing the political calendar. None wished to anger activists in those traditional proving grounds.
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, called Saturday's decision "deplorable" and said he had received a letter with commitments from 10 potential candidates to campaign in his state whenever its primary takes place. Former Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, one of those likely to run, appeared with Lynch in New Hampshire and said, "Should I take the plunge, I'll be here to campaign for your support, no matter when you set your primary."
Three hundred members of the Democratic National Committee wrapped up their summer meeting in Chicago with debate and a vote on the new calendar.
The head of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Kathleen Sullivan, argued that cramming the contests together would mean that Democrats' nominee would be chosen by fewer than 500,000 voters in just four states. "That is not democracy and that is not diversity," Sullivan said.
Despite such opposition, the change passed on a resounding voice vote after less than half an hour of consideration.
"Our rules are not stagnant. They are not meant to be," said U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), characterizing the move as part of a decades-long effort to make the party more inclusive.
Under the timetable adopted Saturday, Iowa continues to hold the first caucus, on Jan. 14, 2008, with Nevada five days later. New Hampshire is to hold the first primary, on Jan. 22, with South Carolina voting a week later. Remaining states can schedule their contests after Feb. 4.
Republicans have their own nominating rules and will not necessarily schedule their primaries and caucuses to match dates chosen by Democrats.
The calendar changes that Democrats adopted Saturday addressed years of party activists' complaints that Iowa and New Hampshire were unrepresentative because of their heavily rural and overwhelmingly white populations.
"Part of moving America in a new direction is selecting a presidential nominee who represents the values, issues and concerns of our country's diverse population," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement after the committee's vote. He was instrumental in pushing Nevada toward the front of the 2008 calendar.
But New Hampshire is not necessarily bowing to the party's preference. State law requires that New Hampshire's primary precede "similar" contests by at least a week; the Jan. 19 Nevada caucus is only three days before New Hampshire is to vote.
"I'm sure there's going to be more to this," New Hampshire Secretary of State William H. Gardner said in an interview after the vote. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean "won't be setting the date of the New Hampshire primary," said Gardner, a Democrat.
The schedule adopted Saturday is to kick off the presidential balloting earlier than ever. As recently as 1996, New Hampshire held its opening primary Feb. 20 -- and that was considered unusually early.
The Democratic National Committee also adopted penalties Saturday to strip delegates from any presidential hopeful who campaigns in a state that ignores the party's preferred schedule.
But that may not deter candidates, most of whom would gladly trade a few delegates for the publicity and momentum of a victory in Iowa or New Hampshire, whenever they vote.
Other potential candidates who signed the letter to Gov. Lynch were Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, and Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.