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THE NATION | Q&A

Presidential primary spat could change '08 race

If California and other big states move up their contests, this time next year we might already know the nominees.

February 18, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Every four years, Americans pick a president. And every election cycle, political insiders fight about the presidential nominating process.

For decades, Iowa and New Hampshire have cast the first votes, giving their residents enormous influence -- and greatly annoying people in much bigger places, including California.

This time, politicians in California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas are taking action to push their primaries up to Feb. 5 to try to boost their clout. The heavy front-loading means the nominating fight could be over by Valentine's Day, giving the nation a nine-month general-election campaign.

How do the two main parties determine their presidential nominating calendars?

Last summer, Democrats set aside January for caucuses and primaries in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The rest of the states are supposed to wait to hold their contests between Feb. 5 and June 10, 2008. The GOP voted at its 2004 convention to give states a window between Feb. 5 and July 28 to hold their events.

Where do the 2008 calendars stand today?

For Democrats, the voting is supposed to start on Jan. 14, with the Iowa caucuses, followed by caucuses in Nevada on Jan. 19, the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 22 and the South Carolina primary Jan. 29.

But New Hampshire officials are unhappy about Nevada's placement just three days ahead of their state's primary. The state is determined to preserve a week's distance between its vote and other contests to avoid diluting its impact, which means New Hampshire is likely to ignore the preference of the national party and schedule its primary earlier. That would probably lead Iowa to push at least a week ahead.

The Republican calendar is in flux, but the GOP contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are likely to fall on the same day the Democrats vote.

What happens if states disobey the rules established by the national parties?

Probably nothing. They could face sanctions, reducing the number of their delegates to the national nominating conventions or, in the case of Democrats, denying officials such as the governor and members of Congress their delegate status. But in reality, neither party seems likely to run the risk of alienating voters, much less the elected officials they would need to carry big states such as California and Florida in the fall.

Why do Iowa and New Hampshire always go first?

Tradition. New Hampshire has been first in the nation since 1920. For decades, few cared. Then a 1949 law passed, allowing citizens to vote directly for candidates, instead of delegates to the national nominating conventions. In 1952, all eyes turned to New Hampshire for an early gauge of voter sentiments. A political institution was born.

The Iowa caucuses took off 20 years later, when then-Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota used a strong showing to push past better-known rivals and win the Democratic nomination. Four years later, another Democratic dark horse, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, won Iowa and, ultimately, the White House.

Given that history, few presidential candidates want to alienate voters in Iowa or New Hampshire by criticizing their privileged status.

What's the difference between a primary and a caucus?

In a primary, the polls are open throughout the day, and people can show up whenever they wish, step into a private voting booth, cast a ballot and be done.

A caucus is more akin to a town hall meeting. It starts at a set time and can last for hours. Participants must publicly state whom they support. Others might argue with them, or try to change their minds. If a candidate fails to achieve a certain threshold of support, he or she is eliminated from consideration, and backers must choose another candidate or go home.

Why does it matter which states go first?

The candidates invest enormous amounts of time, money and energy in the early states, hoping victory or a strong showing will provide momentum heading into the rapid-fire series of contests that follow.

With all that focus, home-state issues, such as ethanol in Iowa, receive enormous attention, as do home-state politicians, who have come to expect the intense courtship.

What's the difference between campaigning in places like Iowa and New Hampshire as opposed to larger states?

Iowa and New Hampshire have relatively small populations. The voters there demand a highly personal style of campaigning that is impossible to replicate in a state the size of California, where expensive TV ads are the only effective means of communication.

It is routine for presidential candidates to submit to hourlong grillings by voters who won't tolerate pretense or evasions.

If anything, they find sport in humbling the mighty, which presidents and vice presidents have learned the hard way.

"Voters want to see you; they want to hold you up to the light, tip you upside down. They want to get a very good, hard look before they make a decision," said New Hampshire Republican activist Fred Bramante.

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