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Set up tree, buy gifts, vote for president

For Florida, earlier primaries means more influence. For voters, it might mean casting ballots during the holidays.

Published February 18, 2007


Imagine adding this to your holiday to-do list: voting for a presidential nominee.

Unless somebody gets a grip on the anarchy developing in the presidential primary schedule, that's what we may see - people in places such as New Hampshire and Iowa, choosing presidential candidates and Christmas gifts at the same time.

Floridians could be voting as they welcome the new year.

Indeed, Christmas 2007 may be a best case scenario for the kickoff of presidential voting nationally, with Florida and many other states determined to vote earlier and earlier in the presidential nominating contests.

"If Florida goes before Feb. 5, a bunch of other states may go sooner, and we'll end up with Iowa and New Hampshire voting around Thanksgiving," said veteran Republican strategist Charles Black of Washington.

Florida normally holds its presidential primaries in March. But in years past, the nominations have been all but locked up by then as candidates built overwhelming momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire. This year, Florida is one of several big states determined to have more influence on the nominating process by holding earlier elections.

Gov. Charlie Crist and leading Republican and Democratic state legislators are backing a bill to set the primary in Florida either a week after New Hampshire's contest, currently set for Jan. 22, or to Feb. 5, whichever comes first.

South Carolinians, who zealously guard the Palmetto State's first-in-the-South status, are watching closely. South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson promised that if Florida moves its date before South Carolina's planned Feb. 2 Republican primary, South Carolina will move still earlier. That, in turn, could push New Hampshire and Iowa to reschedule, too.

"There is no date too early for South Carolina," Dawson said. "We could calendar it to Halloween if we needed to. It would be our version of trick-or-treat."

The national parties are losing control of the election calendar, and the process for picking presidential nominees is getting upended in a way that gives a huge leg up to lavishly funded national political figures.

Consider that then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton didn't announce his candidacy for president in 1992 until October 1991. That would be laughable for a little-known candidate today.

In 1980, only one state had held a primary by the end of February. This year, it's likely nearly half the states will have voted and the nominations will be locked up on Feb. 5.

Those early states will probably include some of the nations' most expensive states for campaigning, such as Florida, California, Illinois and New Jersey. The result is that underdog candidates won't be able to afford to compete from the very outset.

"It makes the campaign so much larger, so much more expensive, you have to be a nationally known candidate," said Democratic pollster Dave Beattie of Florida. "Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter wouldn't have won in this system, and they're the only two Democratic presidential candidates that have won in the last 30 years."

In other words, the Bill Clinton of 1991 would be toast against the Hillary Clinton of 2007.

The nominating calendar was already getting compressed and front-loaded for 2004, when a little known underdog named Howard Dean defied conventional wisdom and emerged as the frontrunner heading into that year's race. Against the Dean surge, John Kerry took a $6-million mortgage out on his Boston home to mount a comeback and snatch the nomination away.

"But somebody borrowing $6.5-million against their house before Iowa this time I don't think would be able to compete," said Black, noting the sharply increased price tag that will come with so many states holding elections right after the Iowa caucuses.

Political scientists and activists have long argued that Iowa and New Hampshire are too white and too homogeneous to have so much sway in picking the presidential nominees.

After the last election, the National Republican Party more or less followed the Democrats' lead in deciding that for regional, ethnic and economic balance, Nevada should squeeze into the early nominating process.

The state added party caucuses after Iowa's Jan. 14 date and party leaders agreed that South Carolina should be guaranteed an exclusive slot soon after New Hampshire.

Both national parties promise sanctions - cutting half a state's allotted delegates to the national conventions - for states that set primaries or caucuses before Feb. 5 without approval.

The response from most Florida Republican and Democratic leaders: So what? Isn't it more important to have a say in the nomination of the presidential candidate than to have a bunch of seats at a nationally televised pep rally for the party's pick?

Florida state Rep. David Rivera, the Miami Republican sponsoring Florida's early primary bill, is among those who say the sanctions are a bluff anyway.

"Once the nominee is decided, they control the conventions," he said. "Why would any nominee, whether it's Hillary on the Democratic side or whoever on the Republican side, alienate Florida and key activists?"

Rivera plans to amend his bill to say that Florida's primary won't fall before the second Tuesday in January, so elections supervisors have some certainty of the date.

Under Florida's early voting system, which opens a limited number of polling places a few weeks before Election Day, that means Floridians can celebrate the new year casting votes for president - 11 months before the general election.

As much as he wants a diverse, battleground state like Florida to be relevant in the nominating process, Rivera acknowledges the calendar is getting crazy.

"This system is broken and it needs to be fixed comprehensively, whether it's regional primaries or a lottery system for primaries," Rivera said. "And at some point some people are going to have to deal with the question of Iowa and New Hampshire. Why should two of the most monolithic populations in the country set the tone of the entire presidential nomination process?"

For Florida, the question remains open as to whether having an early primary would really produce loads of attention from the candidates, since so many other big states are also looking at early February contests. As many as 17 states could be voting on Feb. 5

"The hope in states like Florida is that you'll have candidates standing in living rooms in Kissimmee talking about employment in Florida," said Democratic consultant Tony Welch.

"But if you have so many early states with early primaries it may feel more like the end of a campaign than the beginning, where you go build big rallies and it's not as personal."

As DNC chairman, Dean has been more aggressive in lobbying Democratic legislators against an early Florida primary than RNC chairman Mel Martinez, Florida's junior senator, has been with the Republicans.

Some Democrats speculate that's because the DNC rules are stricter and threaten not to count delegates for Democratic presidential candidates who campaign in states that bust the Feb. 5 window.

Still, enforcing such a penalty against any pivotal state in the general election will be difficult.

Tune in to any nightly cable news show lately, and it's clear the 2008 presidential election already is raging.

Given the evolving primary schedule, it's also clear we're in for the longest general election contest we've ever seen.

"I'm not sure people want to pay attention to two years of presidential campaigning," said former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman.

Like that or not, it looks like we'll have no choice.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at or 727893-8241.


A schedule in progress

This is a tentative schedule of 2008 presidential primaries and caucuses.


14: Iowa (last year, Jan. 19)

19: Nevada Dems (Feb. 14)

22: New Hampshire (Jan. 27)

29: Scheduled - South Carolina Dems (Feb. 3)

Considering it - South Dakota (June 1); Florida (March 9)



2: Scheduled - South Carolina GOP (Feb. 3)

Considering it - Alabama (June 1); Oklahoma (Feb. 3)

5: Scheduled - Arizona (Feb. 3); Arkansas (May 18); Delaware (Feb. 3); Michigan (Feb. 7), Missouri (Feb. 3); Montana (June 8) New Mexico (Feb. 3); North Carolina (May 4); Utah (Feb. 24); Nevada GOP; North Dakota (Feb. 3)

Considering it - Alabama (June 1); California (Mar. 2); Florida; Idaho (Feb. 24); Illinois (Mar. 16); New Jersey (June 8)

9: Considering it - Louisiana GOP (Mar. 9)

10: Maine Dems (Feb. 8)

12: Tennessee (Feb. 10); Virginia (Feb. 10)

19: Wisconsin (Feb. 17)

26: Hawaii Dems (Feb. 24)



2: Hawaii GOP (Feb. 24)

4: Connecticut (Mar. 2); Georgia (Mar. 2); Maryland (Mar. 2); Massachusetts (Mar 2); New York (Mar. 2); Ohio (Mar. 2); Rhode Island (Mar. 2); Texas; Vermont (Mar. 2); Minnesota (Mar. 2).

[Last modified February 17, 2007, 20:45:34]

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