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Primary calendar poses big challenges

As they criss-cross the nation at a dizzying pace, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are locked in a fast-track campaign that has forced frontrunners and the far-behind to rethink the traditional path to nomination seven months before a single vote is cast.
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As they criss-cross the nation at a dizzying pace, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are locked in a fast-track campaign that has forced frontrunners and the far-behind to rethink the traditional path to nomination seven months before a single vote is cast.

In prior campaigns, candidates fought for votes in Iowa and New Hampshire while largely ignoring the rest of the country based on a time-tested belief that wins in those two early states would slingshot them into contention. But now, with many large states moving their primaries to late January or early February, even the best-known and best-financed candidates are being forced to make tough tradeoffs.

Take the decision last week by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R-N.Y.) to bow out of the Ames (Iowa) Straw Poll, a mid-summer campaign event that traditionally has provided important early visibility for candidates. Giuliani concluded he needed to conserve resources for when the votes actually count, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pulled out of the straw poll as well hours later.

Or a recent strategy memo penned by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-N.Y.) deputy campaign manager advocating that she skip the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses next January in order to concentrate on states like Florida, New Hampshire and South Carolina, all of which vote before Feb. 1. Clinton immediately disavowed the memo after it leaked out, but it underscored the challenge for a large field of candidates trying to cope with a highly demanding, front-loaded primary calendar.

Troubling conundrum
Although it poses a troubling conundrum for many of the declared candidates, the new calendar may be a boon to a prominent Republican waiting in the wings. Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) is waging an unorthodox campaign by withholding a formal announcement until the last possible moment while revving up party and media interest in his campaign.

While ten other Republicans have been running hard for months, Thompson has stayed above the fray, eschewing traditional campaign stops in favor of appearances on national cable television programs. It is an effort to appear as more of a national figure than one tied to a specific region or state, and Thompson is betting that his candidacy will catch fire just in time for the early primaries.

"This type of campaign has never been waged," said Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime. "No campaign in the past has ever been in the position where you have this many primaries in this many states that are this expensive."

This article is the first in an occasional series of Fast-Track Campaign stories that will explore the impact of the new political calendar on the 2008 presidential campaign. While there is nothing new about states moving up their presidential primaries to gain more influence over the selection of the parties' nominees, the sheer number of states that have decided to do so in the 2008 campaign cycle has forced rapid recalibrations of traditional strategies for winning the nomination fight.

In 2004 just nine states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Delaware, South Carolina, Arizona, Missouri, North Dakota, New Mexico and Oklahoma -- voted before Feb. 5, while large states like California, Ohio and New York all held votes on the now seemingly quaint "Super Tuesday" of March 2. In 2008, at least 22 states will vote before or on Feb. 5, including delegate treasure troves like California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey.

Why do it?
Why do it? Simple. In theory, moving up to the front of the line ensures a state a larger say in the likely outcome of a race as well as a nice economic boost thanks to the television ads, candidate visits and media throng that accompany early-state status. And, the penalty for jumping the line is minimal.

The Democratic National Committee recently warned Florida Democrats that if they move up their primary to next Jan. 29, as they intend to do, the state party will lose half of its delegates to the national convention. But, convention floor fights are a thing of the past, and most states would prefer an early primary than the full complement of their seats at the nominating convention.

And there's evidence that candidates are paying attention to these newly important states, places they would have ignored in presidential campaigns of yesteryear. Romney has paid 10 visits to Florida already, with just one of those a fund-raising trip, according to's tracker of campaign events. And New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) has placed a steep bet on Nevada -- home to the second caucus next year, currently slated to be held just before New Hampshire. He has paid 22 visits so far this year to the Silver State hoping to win a political jackpot there heading into New Hampshire.

The practical effect of the new, truncated political calendar is that it is no longer possible for frontrunning candidate such as Giuliani or Clinton to focus all of his or her time and financial resources on winning the Iowa caucuses because a parade of costly states await in the not-too-distant future. To capitalize on a strong Iowa showing, a candidate must spend large sums of money on costly voter contact operations in the slew of states that will vote in late January and early February.

Some party activists fear that the nominating process is spinning out of control. The campaign has shifted into such high gear so early in the election cycle that a pair of past presidential aspirants is drafting legislation that would mandate a primary and caucus season spread over several months and balanced in terms of the number of delegates at stake in each period of the campaign.

"The presidential nominating system is broken. It's not a system worthy of the highest office in the land," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who came close to knocking off Bob Dole for the 1996 GOP nomination and then ran unsuccessfully again in 2000.

Federal system for primaries?
Alexander and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the 2000 vice-presidential nominee whose 2004 campaign ran aground after a poor showing in New Hampshire, say they intend to introduce a bill later this month to create a federal system for the presidential primary system. Currently the states determine the primary election schedule, with some oversight from the national party committees.

"We ought to turn the whole thing over to the National Football League's competition committee," Alexander said dismissively.

Alexander, in fact, has sought advice on the matter from his old friend from Georgetown Law School, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The current system, with so much at stake within a relatively few weeks, would be akin to a football season in which the NFL had "80 percent of the games in the first two weeks," Alexander said.

Most political observers believe that the newly frontloaded campaign schedule will primarily benefit front-runners who are able to collect the huge sums of cash needed to finance massive television ad campaigns spanning the three weeks between the Iowa caucuses and the large cluster of primaries on Feb. 5. There will also be pressure on candidates to operate costly and exhausting bi-coastal campaigns, to try to simultaneously drive up their numbers in the Northeast and Midwest and in the far West and Southwest.

"It's hard to do to the door-to-door retail politics," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The biggest question mark on the GOP side is whether Thompson can parlay his fame and fundraising potential into a strong showing in the first critical month of the primary season, after sitting out much of this year.

Alexander and other backers of Thompson argue that his television and movie career give him high name recognition that will provide a priceless advantage running in what will be the first GOP presidential race since 1972 in which no one with the name Bush or Dole is on the national ticket.

Reagan redux
Early national polling that includes Thompson shows him running either second or third behind Giuliani and McCain -- a showing almost entirely the result of his time on television playing district attorney Arthur Branch on "Law and Order." Thompson is shooting to be Reagan redux -- an actor turned politician who rides his name identification and brio straight to the White House. And if his candidacy takes off this summer, the argument goes, he could lock up the nomination with a strong showing early next year in what is shaping up as a national primary.

The counter-argument to the idea that the new calendar has created a de facto national primary is that with so many expensive states crowded into late January and early February the only possible way for a candidate to reach potential voters is through the blitz of media coverage that traditionally follows a win or stronger than expected showing in Iowa or New Hampshire.

"There are going to be so many big states in that early period that no one is going to have the money to play in all of those states," said former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D). "Earned media is the key."

Shaheen acknowledges, however, that the time candidates once lavished on New Hampshire has shrunk over the past few elections as the effects of the fast-track campaign have sunk in. She noted that former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew (D) all but moved to New Hampshire in 1984, spending 70 days campaigning in the state -- a move unlikely to be repeated by any candidate in 2008. (It didn't work for Askew, he finished well out of the money and quickly dropped out of the race.)

Example of changing times
Last week's Democratic debate in New Hampshire is a good example of the changing times. Although the debate didn't end until 9 p.m., Edwards was the only one of the three top-tier candidates to stay in New Hampshire over night. Why? All three had to be in Washington, D.C. the next day to participate in a forum sponsored by Sojourners, a progressive religious organization.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has known some of the current candidates for 20 years or more, said he closely watched Edwards and Clinton during the Sojourners forum and saw signs of weariness.

"Both of them were obviously tired," he said. "It's a grueling process." It's not just Democrats who are feeling the pinch, added Lott. "I am sure McCain gets tired," he said, referring to the 70-year senator whom he has endorsed for president.

For all the talk about a system run amok, there are some who are delighted with the fast-track campaign, because they believe it will quickly determine the nominees and leave more time for the parties to unify around a candidate and focus on the adversary's nominee.

"Valentine's Day will be a big day in the Emanuel household. We'll know our nominee," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who's taken great pains to avoid endorsing anyone because he's close to both Clinton and Obama. "We've never known who our nominee is by Valentine's Day."