Uncertainty leading in race for president

The scramble for which primaries will be held when could influence the election in ways no one can predict.

Posted: September 24, 2007

One of the more remarkable aspects of the 2008 presidential selection process is that no one knows when it's actually going to start.

And no one will know for weeks to come.

This ongoing uncertainty has the potential to influence the outcome in ways impossible to predict, political strategists say, while complicating life for the candidates and their campaigns.

When this all shakes out, the voting will start earlier than ever, much as the campaign for the presidency already has.

"The current system somehow has ended up being both too long and too short," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) told a congressional hearing last week. "It starts too early and ends too soon."

Iowa seems most likely to hold its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses immediately after Jan. 1, turning the holiday week between Christmas and New Year's into campaign crunch time.

The New Hampshire primary, an early-March event not too long ago, figures to take place no later than Jan. 8.

It's not out of the realm of possibility for one or both of those events to take place in December, 13 months before the next president is to take office.

For now, Iowa is waiting to see what New Hampshire does. And New Hampshire is waiting to see what happens with Florida and Michigan, two states whose late moves to stage early primaries have upset the traditional pecking order.

And everyone knows that Iowa and New Hampshire will do whatever is necessary to be first.

"The reason this is such a mess is that it falls on two different fault lines," said William G. Mayer, professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston. "One is between the federal government and the states, the other between government and the political parties."

Which is his way of saying that no one's in charge.

Spokesmen for several presidential candidates say they are coping with the fluidity of the situation. For now, the Democratic candidates (but not the Republicans) have agreed to boycott Florida and Michigan, at least most of the time.

None of this is what you want to be dealing with if you're running a presidential campaign.

"You've got to make really hard choices about the allocation of finite resources against almost infinite possibilities," said Bill Carrick, who managed two campaigns for former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.). "The uncertainty in the calendar just throws all that planning into a tumultous mess."

Even before this chaos developed, candidates were looking at a process that is more front-loaded than ever.

As many as 20 states, including California, New York, Texas, Illinois and New Jersey, are scheduled to vote on Feb. 5. After that, well over half of the delegates to the two national conventions will have been chosen.

(The Pennsylvania primary is scheduled for April 22.)

Seen against this backdrop, an earlier start might not be a bad thing. So says State Rep. Jim Splaine, a New Hampshire Democrat who authored the 1975 law requiring that his state's primary come at least a week before any other.

"Our voting earlier would give people in the mega-primary states more time to look at the candidates and give everyone a little more breathing room," Splaine said. "But it's not to anybody's advantage not to know when things are going to happen."

Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the New Hampshire campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, concurs with the latter statement.

"Our ability to grow support could be truncated [by an earlier primary]," Stevens said. "So we have to work earlier, work harder."

This wasn't supposed to happen. Democratic leaders, who seem more process-obsessed than Republicans, thought they had a suitable calendar for 2008.

In response to grumbling over the role of Iowa and New Hampshire, they had made the opening phase more diverse, geographically and racially, by adding Nevada and South Carolina to the mix.

They had assigned specific dates to the chosen four, beginning with Iowa on Jan. 14, 2008, and barred all other states from voting before Feb. 5.

Which was fine - until Florida moved to Jan. 29, which was supposed to have been South Carolina's day.

And South Carolina Republicans, protective of their first-in-the-South status, jumped ahead to Jan. 19.

And Michigan leap-frogged to Jan. 15, a full week before New Hampshire's slot.

The Democratic National Committee has yet to deal with Michigan. But it has already told its Florida party to back off or forfeit all of its national convention delegates.

Party leaders in Florida are looking at converting their primary into a "beauty contest" with no delegates at stake. That would comply with the rules. Michigan Democrats might or might not do the same.

But the Republicans in Florida, Michigan and South Carolina are going to have full-fledged primaries. Their candidates aren't staying away; they swarmed a Michigan Republican conference this weekend.

"There's a lesson here for Republicans," said Bill Nowling, spokesman for the Michigan GOP. "If you're a state that's key in the general election and you break the rules to move up, you're going to get the attention you want."

So with Michigan locked into Jan. 15, New Hampshire seemingly has to go no later than Jan. 8. The final decision rests with the secretary of state there, William M. Gardner, who has given no indication of what he has in mind.

His mission is to protect the New Hampshire primary at all costs. He has so much flexibility and so few polling places to worry about (315 statewide compared to Philadelphia's 1,681) that he probably can wait until Thanksgiving to make up his mind.

Once Gardner sets his date, Iowa's political leaders will set theirs. Gov. Chet Culver had pledged to keep the 2008 Iowa caucuses in 2008, which will put them extremely early in 2008.

In the end, Iowa and New Hampshire could end up almost on top of each other. That might magnify the so-called bounce that a successful Iowa candidate gets going into New Hampshire. Or reduce it. A case can be made either way.

Some strategists say the uncertainty helps the national front-runners, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Others say it simply reinforces the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire for the entire field.

A lot of people see the whole thing as a sign that the process is in desperate need of repair.

"Clearly, something needs to be done," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.). "The presidential nominating process is too important to our democracy to allow the pell-mell scramble to continue."

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.

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