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VEGAS, BABY!

Makeup, not makeover

July 29, 2006

THE DEMOCRATS ARE EAGER TO bet on Nevada. That state and South Carolina are being proposed as worthy of joining Iowa and New Hampshire as the first ones to have a say in nominating the party's presidential candidate.

Nevada, which would vote before New Hampshire but after Iowa in 2008 under a proposal before the Democratic National Committee, is an intriguing choice. The party, historically split between its Southern roots and its Northeast liberal base, is wise to focus more on the West, and particularly the booming Southwest.

Nevada's demographics are appealing. The fast-growing state -- a competitive battleground in the blue-red split -- has a large Latino population and a blend of retirees and young workers flooding in from California and the East. Not coincidentally, Nevada also is one of the few bright spots in the country for big labor. Las Vegas casinos are famously union friendly, and they provide tens of thousands of well-paying jobs that have allowed refugees from higher-cost locales to buy into the American dream.

The choice of Nevada, therefore, also is a way for an important party constituency -- unions -- to gain influence over the nominating process, especially in light of the fact that the state has a caucus, not a primary. That's unfortunate. We like the choice of Nevada, but not if it means emphasizing caucuses -- involved public affairs that discourage the participation of anyone other than committed activists -- at the expense of more democratic primaries. This proposal would be more palatable if Nevada switched to a primary. Currently, Iowa holds the first caucus and New Hampshire the first primary.

Overall, the revision of the nominating calendar being considered amounts to a cosmetic fix.

Bogged down by the endless debate over whether to preserve the exalted status of Iowa and New Hampshire (overwhelmingly white states that are far from representative), the DNC has dodged a golden opportunity to address deeper problems, such as the front-loading of contests nationwide.

The nominating process continues to get squeezed shorter as more and more states move up the date of their vote to remain relevant. The results are a compressed calendar that penalizes long-shot candidates who may take time to catch on with the electorate, and the creation of an embarrassingly long lull between someone effectively winning the nomination before the snow has melted in much of the country and his or her coronation at the late summer conventions.

A more ambitious and orderly overhaul of the process would call for a series of rotating "regional primaries." Every few weeks, a diverse group of states would hold a primary, and the order in which each group would vote could change from election to election.

But for now, the party has opted merely to tinker, and it looks as if candidates in the future will have to spend a lot more time in Vegas.

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