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Democrats Struggle To Rein In Runaway Primaries

By Reid Wilson

As both parties strain to maintain some semblance of control over their nominating processes, each faces unique challenges from states eager to exert their influence. But, thanks to their respective party rules, Republicans have delayed the difficult decisions facing them, while Democrats find themselves making headlines for taking action, and not always in a positive way.

Few states will ever be satisfied with their position in the process. The challenge, for both parties, is to exert enough control, and offer enough compromise, to prevent outright mutiny. With all but a few states allowed to hold their primaries between February 5th and the middle of June, though, both parties find themselves facing more states defying their rules and holding nominating contests in January or sooner.

The latest challenge to parties' ability to set their own rules came to a head Saturday, during a meeting of the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee. Florida, which plans to hold a primary on January 29th, hoped to keep their delegates in advance of DNC threats to find the state out of compliance.

Florida Democratic leaders blamed their state's Republican-led legislature for pushing them into a corner. "We did everything we could to value and honor the rules of this committee," said long-time Florida DNC member Terrie Brady. "We're asking you for mercy, not judgment," added Jon Ausman, another Florida DNC member.

The committee was not in a lenient mood. "This committee feels very strongly that the rules ought to be enforced," said RBC member Harold Ickes, a veteran Democratic activist. Committee members voted overwhelmingly to revoke all of Florida's delegates to the 2008 convention if the state goes ahead with the January 29th primary.

Exasperation on the part of committee members was palpable "We can all agree that the process may be too early," said committee member Tina Flournoy, a top official with the American Federation of Teachers. "I am terribly troubled by this whole process," added committee member Don Fowler, a former DNC chairman.

The meeting, a continuation of a nearly two-year process to reform the primary calendar begun by former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, demonstrated the differences between two parties equally disturbed by an increasingly early nominating calendar. Democrats voted Saturday to approve several exceptions for some states, on issues ranging from early filing deadlines, Affirmative Action plans, delegate allocations and, in Florida's case, the day the primary is held.

Republicans, on the other hand, set their rules at the 2004 convention. The party cannot change rules between conventions, so states have known for three years what rules apply. States have until September 4th to submit their plans to the RNC for approval, and, while RNC officials will not speculate on which states may face penalties, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, Wyoming, Florida and Maine appear to be planning to hold contests before February 5th. At least three states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, are likely to earn permission to hold contests early.

On the Democratic side, some think the last-minute exceptions fit the trend of an increasingly decentralized Democratic National Committee. "It certainly does play into stereotypes with the Democrats as the free spirit kind of party," said Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. "The Democrats are feeling good about their chances [of winning the White House in 2008] and so on, but the party franchise is getting kicked around."

Both parties face the prospect of another defector, as Michigan considers moving its primary to as early as January 15th. The Republican-controlled State Senate voted last week to move the primary up, and the move has the support of Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, Democratic Senator Carl Levin and the state Republican Party.

Whether Michigan moves its primary up hinges now on the Democratic-controlled State House. State party chairman Mark Brewer, a member of the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, was among those voting to sanction Florida for moving earlier, signaling that Michigan's move to the front is far from a certainty.

Members of the committee, in voting to hold Florida's feet to the fire, sent a strong message to Michigan and others in hopes of stemming the tide.

The move also made sure the committee would not favor any state, or any candidate, over another. "The fairest way to handle the process is to have no one benefit," said committee member Ralph Dawson after the meeting, at which he offered the motion to strip Florida's delegates.

Adding to the chaos, Rules and Bylaws Committee members are not the final arbiters of credential questions. "The convention will be the ultimate decider of who gets seated," said Ickes. If Florida fails to change its primary and the DNC does strip them of delegates, Floridians can still take their fight to the convention's credentials committee.

That means candidates may decide to compete for Florida delegates and take their fight to the convention. If the eventual nominee decides to flout DNC rules, compete in Florida and Michigan and then exerts pressure on the DNC to seat their delegates, states planning for 2012 will take notice. In that case, the fight to control the calendar could slip further out of the grasps of both the DNC and the RNC, and would likely give more power to rogue states intent on attracting presidential campaigns.

Rules committee members, and prominent leaders of both parties, share the notion that the system is in desperate need of a fix. "The process is still a mess," said Democratic committee member Alice Germond. "It was broke and getting broker, and now it's getting even more broken."

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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