True, those states can be hard to ignore. Candidates running third in national polls -- Mitt Romney and John Edwards -- are leading in the Iowa polls, with Romney leading in New Hampshire, as well. A win is still a win, and both hope to get a bounce that will give them valuable momentum going into Nevada, South Carolina, Florida, Michigan and the many states scheduled to vote on Feb. 5. But the crowd of early contests also raises the possibility that voters in the big states may decide they don't need to take instruction from Iowa and New Hampshire. That's what Giuliani and McCain and maybe Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are betting on.
If that turns out to be the case, we will have moved toward a de facto early national primary, which not only devalues retail politics but forces voters to make a decision all at once without seeing how candidates stand up under the rigors of campaigning.
Is there an alternative? My favorite is the Delaware Plan, which came close to being endorsed by the 2000 Republican National Convention. It has four rounds of primaries or caucuses, with the 12 smallest states voting in March, followed by the 13 next largest in April, the next 13 in May and ending with the final 12 largest states voting in June. This would leave plenty of room for retail politics, with candidates able to pick the states where they might run best. Voters in later states would be able to judge how candidates run the gauntlet.
The nominations could not be clinched until June, since the 12 largest states have 60 percent of the nation's population. The parties could endorse this system at their national conventions. Or if there was bipartisan support, Congress could impose it as federal law. Iowa and New Hampshire have been disproportionately powerful for 30-plus years now. But maybe not forever.