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A de Facto National Primary?

By Peter Brown

We'll know in the next few months whether the efforts in several big-state capitols will effectively create a de facto national primary that will pick the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees.

If that occurs -- the magic date is likely to be Feb. 5, 2008 -- it will greatly change the nomination process, and perhaps the result, from what it might have been under the previous primary calendar.

Simply put, in the case of a de facto national primary, long-shot candidates need not apply. They won't have the money, organizational support or name recognition to compete in that many states at the same time.

Moreover, if the presidential nominees are determined by early February that will create an exhausting nine-month general election campaign, by far the longest in American history. That means nine months of negative ads, campaign rallies and breathless news coverage.

Legislators in states that include New Jersey, Florida, California, Michigan and Illinois are clashing with their own national party leaders because lawmakers desire to move up their presidential primaries.

The Democratic and Republican National Committees are trying to stop these major states from moving up to Feb. 5 to join more than a half-dozen others, including Arizona, North Carolina and Missouri, that are already scheduled for that date.

. The big states resent the disproportionate clout little states such as Iowa (Jan. 14) and New Hampshire (Jan. 22) have enjoyed in the candidate-selection process, not to mention the attention.

Typically, long-shot candidates have based their strategy on using those two contests as a springboard to success in larger states. Jimmy Carter became president that way, but since his 1976 election, no long shot has won either major party nomination.

The Democratic National Committee, in an effort to deal with resentment of New Hampshire and Iowa's clout, has moved up Nevada to Jan. 19 and South Carolina to Jan. 29, but that has done little to quell the unhappiness.

Some of the big states are even talking about holding their primaries before Feb. 5, but that seems less likely because of threats from Democratic national leaders not to seat those states' delegates if they move their primaries prior to Feb. 5.

To some extent this has been a quadrennial problem, with states moving up and moving back their primary dates over the past decades. But never have there been so many delegates at stake so early in the election as would be the case if the big states move to Feb. 5. In previous election cycles, such as the creation of a southern "Super Tuesday" series of primaries two decades ago, those contests were in March.

Although national party leaders are pressuring local lawmakers not to move up their primaries, they have little power to stop the mass movement if legislators decide to move to the Feb. 5 date.

A de facto national primary would likely help Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and John McCain of Arizona, the presumed front-runners for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. They are likely to enter 2008 with more money, higher name recognition and endorsements from state political leaders and interest groups. Their money advantage would allow them to compete - and buy television ads - everywhere, while the endorsements would supply the foot soldiers for their campaigns.

There are candidates on both sides of the aisle who would be competitive with the front-runners under such a scenario. They include Democrats Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards; and Republicans Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor. They already have the required name recognition (except for Romney) and have demonstrated fund-raising ability.

But there are almost a dozen other potential candidates in the two parties -- senators, congressmen and governors well known in their home states, but strangers to the national electorate -- who would be severely handicapped by a massive Feb. 5 primary.

More than anyone else, these potential candidates are keeping their eyes on the state legislative maneuvering as they decide whether new rules of the road will make their long-shot candidacies a no-shot.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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