By Mary Wisniewski and James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Skimpy budgets are cutting into the way states pay for schools, health care, and now -- even primary elections.
At least six states are considering either canceling or delaying their 2012 presidential primaries, mostly to save money.
None of this will likely have much effect on the Democratic presidential candidate, expected to be President Barack Obama.
But it could cause trouble for moderate Republicans, by allowing a protracted battle and giving conservatives a louder voice, according to political analysts.
"The candidates are going to be falling all over themselves to appeal to the Republican base, which is very, very conservative, and the Tea Party people, and they could paint themselves into a corner there, taking positions that are far to the right of the swing voters," said Alan I. Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University.
The biggest state considering a delay is California, where a bill has unanimously passed a State Assembly committee that would move the presidential primary from February to June, to coincide with its state and local primary.
"We'll save $100 million by eliminating the stand-alone presidential primary," said Democratic California Assemblyman Paul Fong, the bill's sponsor.
Fong believes the combined election will increase turn-out and fight voter fatigue. "Three major elections in one year is too much," Fong said.
Legislators in Missouri and Alabama have also proposed bills shifting their presidential primaries to June, combining them with state primaries. Washington and Kansas are considering skipping the presidential primaries altogether, allowing parties to pick candidates through caucuses. The idea of skipping the primary also came up during a Massachusetts budget hearing.
"The last presidential primary we had in our state -- the Republicans only used 50 percent of the results and the Democrats did not use the results at all," said Patty Murphy, voting systems specialist for the Washington Secretary of State. She said eliminating the primary could save the state $10 million.
The impact of delaying primaries may be greater on local contests, where moderate Republicans may be hurt by activists pulling toward the right, said Arthur Lupia, professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
"The people who go to primary elections are folks who are really passionate about battles with the party -- and those folks tend to be folks on the edges," said Lupia. "And you're going to bring them now into the races for governor and the state legislature and the mayor and the dog catcher."
Both the Democratic and the Republican party agreed last year that no state could hold their primaries before February, and most states must hold them in March or later. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said the RNC's priority right now is working to make sure the joint nomination schedule is followed.
The budget cutting is not expected to affect the earliest contests in 2012. While the final schedule has not yet been set, the traditional early presidential caucus in Iowa and primary in New Hampshire again are expected to be the first votes of 2012, according to political analysts.
While states are interested in saving money, a negative financial impact of delaying or eliminating a primary could be the loss of money spent in states on local media ads, hotel rooms and meals for campaign staffs, said Travis Ridout, political science professor at Washington State University.
The other issue is whether voters feel that by delaying the primary, their voices won't count.
Fong said he was not concerned about any political party ignoring the voice of California, the most populous U.S. state. But the decision could have a bigger impact on a small state like Alabama.
"You risk, if you put your primary back to May or even April, that it (the Republican nomination race) could be over by then," said Abramowitz.
(Writing and reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Reporting by James Kelleher and Andrew Stern, Editing by Greg McCune)