Early Primary Rush Upends ’08 Campaign Plans
WASHINGTON, March 9 — The trickle of states moving their 2008 presidential primaries to Feb. 5 has turned into an avalanche, forcing all the presidential campaigns to reconsider every aspect of their nominating strategy — where to compete, how to spend money, when to start television advertising — as they gird for the prospect of a 20-state national Primary Day.
In the last two weeks, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, dispatched the director of his political action committee to run his primary campaign in California, where a bill to move the primary to Feb. 5 is on the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat, announced that he had won the endorsement of Richard J. Codey, a former acting governor of New Jersey, testimony to the state’s new status as it readies to shift its primary to Feb. 5 from June.
Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, held a rally the other day in Texas, and aides to Rudolph W. Giuliani, the New York Republican, said staff members would be sent to California, Florida and Missouri, as both candidates prepare for expected Feb. 5 primaries in those states.
“It’s becoming a brush fire out there,” Mr. Obama said in an interview.
Mr. McCain, remarking on the difference from the last time he ran for president, suggested that the front-loaded primary day was not a good development. “I don’t think there’s enough exposure of the candidates the way that there used to be, having to go state by state by state over a long period of time,” he said.
For the most part, the candidates and their aides cannot quite figure out what all this turmoil means for them. The changes, which are shaping up to be the most substantial alteration ever to a campaign calendar in a single election cycle, have heightened the volatility of the most wide-open presidential race in 50 years, one with large and well-financed fields of contenders.
Aides to the candidates said they were debating whether the changes would mean that the nominations would effectively be settled on Feb. 5, by which point easily 50 percent of the delegates are likely to have been chosen, or whether a few strong candidates would divide the Feb. 5 take, forcing the campaign to stretch on for months. That could, oddly enough, make those fewer states sticking to later primaries vital players in the election cycle.
The changes are forcing candidates to decide whether Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with contests before Feb. 5, will become more influential as contenders look for early victories to give them momentum. And with as many as 23 states voting on a single day — more states than are typically considered competitive in a general election — candidates must decide which ones to ignore, given the demands on their time and bank accounts.
“This primary season is turning into the most challenging Rubik’s Cube that we’ve faced in our lifetime,” said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, the counsel to Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who is seeking the Republican nomination, and one of his party’s leading experts on election law, pointing to the calendar, the fund-raising demands and the absence of a front-runner in either party.
For Democrats, the prospect of a mega-primary has created a new calculation about the importance of black voters, already a constituency being fiercely courted by Mr. Obama, who is seeking to become the nation’s first black president, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. There are hardly any black voters in Iowa and New Hampshire; by contrast, they could play an important role in California, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and New York.
The early primary drive is the latest evidence of the national parties’ continuing decline in influence over the nominating process. A Democratic Party effort to force states and candidates to abide by the calendar, with threats of refusing to seat delegates chosen by states that defy its rules, seems doomed to fail, with candidates and states saying they will ignore it.
The developments have stirred despair among some Democratic National Committee officials, who pushed through a new calendar this year that sought to dilute the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire by letting Nevada and South Carolina hold nominating contests before Feb. 5. Nevada’s Democratic caucus will be five days after the Jan. 14 Iowa caucus, and South Carolina’s primary will be at least a week after the Jan. 22 New Hampshire primary.
Donna Brazile, one of the Democratic Party leaders involved in pushing through those changes, said she believed that Iowa and New Hampshire were now more powerful than ever because of the move toward Feb. 5. “I am very alarmed,” Ms. Brazile said. “This is the opposite of what we are trying to do.”
But Tom McMahon, the executive director of the Democratic Party, said in an interview that having Nevada and South Carolina go earlier had allowed the party to achieve its main goal. “We’ve been able to insert diversity where diversity didn’t occur before,” Mr. McMahon said, “and we are able to preserve more small states to allow more candidates to get into this.”
With 11 months before the Iowa caucuses, what is most striking, campaign officials said, is just how much uncertainty there is about this most fundamental part of a campaign: when people are going to vote. The National Association of Secretaries of State reported that 23 states were either considering moving to Feb. 5 or certain to do so. But that number changes daily as bills move between legislative committees and to governors’ desks.
The importance of Iowa and New Hampshire has emerged as one of the critical questions for the campaigns.
Some analysts said the winners in the early states would emerge with so much momentum and favorable news media attention that they would dominate the national primary to follow and lay claim to their party’s nomination, much the way Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts captured the Democratic nomination in 2004 after his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But others said having a 20-state primary a week later would allow candidates who performed weakly in the early states to rebound, particularly if they had the advantage of money or name recognition.
Mr. Giuliani’s aides suggested they might not spend as much time and money in Iowa and New Hampshire as other candidates, given his potential strength on Feb. 5 in places like California and New Jersey, two states with a more moderate electorate than Iowa and South Carolina.
“We have the ability to play the game a little differently,” said Mike DuHaime, who is running Mr. Giuliani’s campaign. “It’s not a matter of saying the early states aren’t important, because they are. It is just a matter of realizing that, unlike past primaries, there are many more states this year that will help decide the nominee.”
Terry Nelson, Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, said Mr. Giuliani’s campaign appeared to have adopted what he called a Feb. 5 strategy, which he said could be a dangerous miscalculation by ignoring the states deciding before then. “It doesn’t diminish the influence and impact of the earlier states,” Mr. Nelson said of the shift to Feb. 5, “because it’s going to be very difficult for any campaign to build the resources you need to compete in all of these states.”
On the Democratic side, aides to Mr. Edwards are hoping for big victories in Iowa and South Carolina to make up for any advantage Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have because they are so much better known and may prove to be more effective at raising money.
There is near-universal agreement among officials of both parties that the new calendar will give a huge advantage to well-known candidates, in particular Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Giuliani, Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama. Beyond that, California and New Jersey are likely to be more receptive to Mr. Giuliani than are Iowa and South Carolina, with their many conservative voters.
The uncertainty goes beyond how many states will move their primaries to Feb. 5, and it seems to be starting a war between the states.
“California wants a piece of the presidential primary action, and it is willing to harm the country to get it,” The New Hampshire Union Leader said in a blistering editorial attacking California for encroaching on what had been New Hampshire’s early-primary turf.
New Hampshire officials are threatening to move their primary to before Jan. 22, asserting that the shift by Nevada violated a New Hampshire law requiring that it be first in the country. Iowa officials have responded by saying that if New Hampshire moves its primary, it will move its caucus to eight days before the primary.
That has set off a reaction in Michigan, the state that started pushing for others to go early in the first place. “It’s a terrible thing, it’s a real problem,” said Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “We’re going on the 9th unless some state, such as New Hampshire, breaks the scheduling rules, and then we’re going to move it up.”