Early Primaries Shift States' Clout

Twenty-two states are holding presidential primaries on Feb. 5, 2008, giving them the impact held previously by Iowa and New Hampshire in selecting a nominee. Florida recently moved its primary to Jan. 29.

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An unprecedented number of states are preparing to hold primaries on February 5th, 2008. It's 22 states so far. Florida is moving its primary even earlier, to January 29th. These states hope their moves will make them more relevant, but it's also forcing the candidates to rethink their strategies earlier than ever.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: No one quite knows how to deal with the turbo-charged primary calendar, least of all the candidates. Here's Hillary Clinton speaking on a recent campaign trip to California.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): We've never had a primary process like this. We're all trying to figure out how to manage the resources, the time, the organizational challenges, but I'm excited that California is…

LIASSON: When California had a March primary, presidential candidates treated the state like an ATM machine. But now the candidates have to actually fight for votes in California and the other big February 5th states, like New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Illinois. And it's already putting a strain on candidate's resources and stamina.

But there's a debate about exactly how the February 5th primaries will affect the race. Barack Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, says it will only increase the importance of the earlier contests.

Mr. DAVID PLOUFFE (Campaign Manager for Senator Barack Obama): What happens in Iowa impacts Nevada, and what happens in Nevada is going to impact in New Hampshire, and what happens in New Hampshire is going to impact South Carolina.

And what happens in those first four stages is going to have a deep impact on what happens on February 5th. So even if you're well funded, even if you got a lot of political endorsement, even if you spend a lot of time in those states, if you start losing in the early stage, you know whatever political capital you build up is probably going to be really eroded by the time you get to February 5th.

LIASSON: In other words, while the early contest used to give a winner momentum, this year they could act like a slingshot. Or maybe not. Political scientist Merle Black thinks that in a Republican race at least, February 5th could diminish the importance of the early primary states for certain candidates.

Professor MERLE BLACK (Political Science, Emory University): It makes it much more possible for someone who's probably less conservative, like a Rudy Giuliani, to do well in California and New York and New Jersey, to have a big, big day on February 5th. And then, after that, he's in the ballgame. I think the Republican nomination is not going to be decided in these small state primaries anymore.

LIASSON: Scott Reed ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. He's now supporting John McCain. He thinks the national primary gives an advantage to well-financed candidates, and one in particular.

Mr. SCOTT REED (Former Campaign Manager for Senator Bob Dole): On the Republican side, right now, there's really only one candidate, Mitt Romney, that has the personal wealth to be able to write a check for $75 million or $80 million Christmas Day and to be able to be on in all of those states that will be affected by February 5th. The other campaigns, looking at their spending, they're going to be lucky enough to have the $10-15 million just to be on in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. So Romney has a little more of a leg up here than people think because he'll be able to, in a way, buy his way into this race.

LIASSON: On the Democratic side, Clinton strategist Mark Penn sees an advantage for his party as a whole.

Mr. MARK PENN (Campaign Consultant for Hillary Clinton): One of the by-products of this will be that more voters in more states will pay attention to the race. When their primaries were in June, they could look at the result of Iowa and New Hampshire but they really didn't have to watch the debates in September and October. And I think we'll get unprecedented audiences for some of these campaign events.

LIASSON: The super-duper Tuesday states have about 75 percent of all registered Democratic voters in the country. By February 5th, they will have helped choose the Democratic nominee, and the Democratic Party hopes that will make them more energized for the general election.

There's also another new wrinkle in the February 5th primary, says Republican Scott Reed.

Mr. REED: One of the untold secrets is that voting starts in a lot of these states 30 days prior when they begin to get those ballots. Some will be getting them before New Year's Day. That will change the whole way campaigns are run and how you allocate your resources.

LIASSON: That means before anyone in New Hampshire or Iowa votes, people in Texas and California will have already cast their ballots by mail. And if that doesn't complicate things enough, the schedule still isn't finalized. Florida has advanced the date of its primary to January 29th, and that could cause South Carolina, which also has a primary that day, to move earlier.

New Hampshire, which jealously guards its first in the nation primary, could move its date back into 2007. So even though the presidential campaign is well underway, the candidates still aren't sure exactly when the voting begins.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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