WASHINGTON -- The bewilderingly shifting dates in next January's early presidential primaries may complicate the candidates' timing and tactics, but is it wreaking havoc in our American political system? I don't think so. The major primaries and caucuses will be held a little earlier than usual in January, as anticipated by the candidates. But Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and now Nevada will remain the entry portals to the Feb. 5 Super Duper Tuesday when it is likely that the nominees will have been all but chosen by their parties.
The primary system is more front-loaded than ever, but as before, it will work to the advantage of the better-funded front-runners who emerge in January -- with enough cash to finance the costly ad campaigns needed to run simultaneously in more than 20 states on the first Tuesday in February. On the Democratic side, that means New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who have huge war chests. On the GOP's side, it means former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and probably former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
No one I have talked to on the Democratic or Republican sides of the aisle likes the compressed, early nominating schedule that has emerged. It works against lesser-known candidates who have better credentials to be president but who need more time to introduce themselves to the nation. Voters in those states whose candidate-selection contests are held later do not get to participate in the process until it is usually too late to exert any influence on the party's choice.
Instead of the lengthy gauntlet of primaries that slowly works its way through the spring and summer, weeding out the weaker candidates, the nominees are chosen almost in the blink of an eye. Critics say this is not the way we should be choosing the leader of the free world.
"The primary process is broken. It's a terrible mess. It really is not fair in the way the public gets to participate in the nominating process," said Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff under President Clinton and a veteran Democratic strategist.
In New Hampshire, whose early January primary date is still not settled, Democratic State Chairman Ray Buckley blames his own party as well as the Republicans for what he calls a "chaotic" process.
"As far as I am concerned, a pox on both parties. The Democrats kicked this off by establishing the front-loaded system, and the Republican Party of Florida (moving its primary up to Jan. 29) and South Carolina (to Jan. 19) has gleefully jumped into the mud pile," he complained to me.
"I don't think it's good for the voters, but it's very clear that the Democrats' calendar changes last year and now the Republican National Committee this year have caused this. I guess we reap what we sow," he said.
But Panetta does not think this is going to hurt the candidates who are running at the head of the pack.
"Whatever dates the states select, I think it's not going to impact who the front-runners are. They've already calculated some of the moving dates into their game plan," he told me.
If you're running in the second tier of candidates, struggling to become better known and get your message out, the front-loading is not a good thing, as Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico well knows.
Richardson is hardly a household name, yet he has the best resume in his party: U.N. ambassador, energy secretary, congressman, a two-term governor who cut taxes and an international troubleshooter who knows many of the world leaders on a first-name basis.
But lesser-known candidates have overcome their name-ID problem before. Colorado Sen. Gary Hart burst out of nowhere to beat former Vice President Walter Mondale in New Hampshire in 1984 and drove his underfunded campaign all the way to the convention.
Romney, a one-term governor who has never held any other office, is still little known on the national stage. But he has outraised his GOP rivals in the race for money and has pushed himself into the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire. So David is still capable of fighting Goliath.
Obama, a freshman senator without wealth or connections who was relatively little known nationally until this year, has propelled himself to the top of the heap as a result of his inspiring oratorical skills and likeable persona. And he has beaten Hillary Clinton in the fund-raising race, too.
So the American political system is still wide open to anyone with pluck and perseverance who aspires to the presidency, no matter how chaotic the nominating system may appear to be.
The selection process may move faster than it should, but that will still leave a longer period before the general election when the nominees will be challenged and tested anew -- exposing their candidacy, warts and all. The Republicans are good at that. Just ask John Kerry.