WASHINGTON -- Plans by four major states to hold their presidential primaries early next year raises the likelihood the nominees will be chosen in a matter of weeks before most of the country has had a say in their selection. For years now, the states have been moving their primary and caucus dates up earlier and earlier in the election year, squeezing more delegate-selection contests into January and February. Now California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey are also expected to schedule their primaries as early as Feb. 5 in a calculated move to influence, if not decide, who will be their parties' 2008 nominees.
That development has sent campaign strategists for the presidential contenders back to the drawing boards, trying to figure out how this affects the race for the White House and whether they can turn it to their advantage. Certainly the accelerated nominating calendar puts more pressure on the front-runners to nail down their victories early because the race will be all but over in a high-speed blur that favors the better-funded, better-known candidates.
But it's also renewed political debate over the nature of an increasingly front-loaded system that can choose a nominee before most voters know that much about them -- forcing the contenders to campaign on television in a number of big states in a shorter period of time, without meeting many voters face-to-face.
"No candidate is going to be able to spend a lot of time in any one state on Feb. 5. They are going to have to spread themselves thin. The voters in those states are not going to have the opportunity to get to know those candidates," said Kathleen Sullivan, the veteran Democratic chairman of New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the first primary of the year.
"I don't think it is good for the process. The front-loading is going to hurt all of the candidates in both parties because whoever the two nominees end up being, it will be such a truncated nominating process that they will not have been truly tested by the voters," Sullivan told me.
"What we will end up having is the nominee of our party being decided no later than Feb. 5, because there will be at least 12 and probably more states with a primary on that one day for both parties," she said.
The bigger states have a point when they argue the early, smaller, less voter-diversified states have had an inordinate influence in choosing the nominees. Why should Iowa, which holds the first contest in a system of local caucuses (on Jan. 14), get so much prolonged attention?