By Samuel P. Jacobs
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Republican proposal to move up the date of the party's presidential nominating convention to early summer in 2016 - instead of the end of August - could trigger a similar move by Democrats, officials in that party said on Wednesday.
Seeking to avoid a repeat of the nasty primary race that damaged eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney last year, the Republican National Committee (RNC) said in a report this week that it might shorten its primary season for the next presidential election.
For Republican contenders, that could mean a more compact schedule of state primaries and caucuses, fewer candidate debates (there were 20 spread over nine months in 2011-2012), and a national convention in late June or early July.
Party officials say a big reason for changing the schedule would be to identify a Republican nominee earlier to take fuller advantage of campaign finance laws that prevent a candidate from spending funds earmarked for the November election until the candidate becomes a party's official nominee.
Such a change by Republicans for 2016 could lead Democrats to move their convention to early summer as well, state Democratic leaders said.
"The party that gets their (presidential) nominee out for six weeks, eight weeks early would have an advantage," said Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "I think there would be significant pressure" to move up the Democratic convention.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC), which will review the 2016 calendar in September, plans to closely watch the RNC as it determines its schedule this spring.
"It is a choreographed dance that includes the RNC, the DNC, and of course, the states," said Ray Buckley, head of the New Hampshire state Democratic Party and vice chairman of the DNC.
CUTTING BACK ON DEBATES
In 2012 Republicans grew anxious waiting for their late-August convention in Tampa, Florida, as Democratic President Barack Obama and his allies bombarded Romney with attack ads.
The ads followed a Republican primary campaign in which other candidates targeted Romney, the well-funded front-runner, as someone who was not conservative enough.
Many Republicans see a shorter primary season as a way to cut down on intraparty feuding and extend their nominee's time reaching out to voters in contested states such as New Hampshire, which went for Obama in November.
But others see fewer opportunities for an underdog to emerge and an increased chance that Republicans will nominate someone who has not been fully vetted by the primary process.
Democratic officials and strategists, meanwhile, say identifying a presidential nominee early in the summer could allow the candidate more time to campaign in states such as North Carolina and Georgia, which went for Romney in 2012 but that Democrats see as winnable in 2016.
Some veterans of Democratic presidential campaigns believe that their party, which will have no incumbent running in 2016, would be well advised to follow the Republicans' lead in limiting the number of same-party debates.
During the early stages of a primary, such debates can benefit candidates who have little chance of winning their party's nomination, much less a general election.
The Republicans' primary season last year often was a race to show which candidate could please the party's most conservative members, resulting in situations that analysts said wound up hurting Romney in the November election.
At a September 2011 debate, the crowd booed a question from a gay soldier about the military's policy that had excluded openly gay soldiers. Some of the most stinging attacks on Romney's background as a wealthy private equity executive were given their earliest airings by fellow Republicans in debates.
Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who advised John Kerry and Al Gore in their presidential campaigns, said that Democrats likely will try to limit their debates in the 2016 campaign.
"That's a reform that the Democrats will join in," Devine said.
STATE LAWS ARE A HURDLE
Others say the numbers of debates has little effect on the strength of the eventual nominee.
Before the 2008 election won by Obama, the Democratic Party held 25 debates. Obama participated in all but one. Romney participated in 19 of his party's 20 debates in 2011-2012.
Republicans are also blaming the length of the 2012 primary for their lack of success, even though their race wasn't unusually long.
Romney declared his candidacy 10 months before he secured his party's nomination in April 2012. By comparison, Obama clinched his nomination in June 2008, 15 months after announcing his candidacy and after a primary campaign against Hillary Clinton that lasted into the summer.
The most difficult challenge for either party would be a major change to the primary schedule, which depends on the cooperation of state committees and grassroots organizers whose goals occasionally are at odds with the national parties.
"I would not expect to see fundamental wholesale change of calendar," Devine said. "You go into a mess of state laws that is almost impossible to navigate."
Since 1976, Iowa and New Hampshire have secured their prominence by launching the presidential primary season. They are small states whose advocates say offer inexpensive campaigns with engaged electorates. Since 1980, South Carolina has solidified its position as the third state to vote in the nominating process.
Behind those three, there is much jockeying among states to vote earlier each election cycle to try to increase the importance of the individual states' votes.
The RNC report suggests states might forfeit delegates if they hold primary elections before certain dates. But state parties have been willing to risk that censure in exchange for the exposure their state receives in the primary process.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Xavier Briand)