New Hampshire, Watch Your Back

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Nothing elicits the game-time buzz of an incipient Presidential contest like the mid-winter trek through Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to weigh in on the nominating contest. But political junkies will have to adjust their thermostats for 2008. At a meeting July 22, the Democrats are set to revamp their voting calendar, and some big changes are likely. Members of the Democratic committee in charge of the schedule say they will add a southwestern and a southern state to the early caucus and primary schedule. Iowa's caucus will remain first on the campaign schdule, the Democrats say. But it will now be followed by a Southwestern caucus, New Hampshire's primary, and a Southern primary over the next few weeks, before the field is opened for all states Feb. 5, 2008. Already opponents are up in arms.

Former President Bill Clinton attacked the change late last month on a trip to New Hampshire, saying that he is against diminishing the state's importance by interposing another caucus. "I worry about the continued pushing of the presidential calendar forward by states that think they can be more important if they are earlier, robbing candidates of the time they need... in New Hampshire," Clinton said. Hillary, he said, "has exactly the same feeling I do," about it.

Protecting New Hampshire, though important to any presidential contender (or contender's spouse), is just one reason some people are angry about the deal. Critics say it further compresses the time in which to test candidates, puts a premium on money and fundraising over retail political skill, and risks a chaotic competition for first-in-the-country bragging rights. "The people who want this have the votes, so the process is going ahead," says Don Fowler, the former DNC head who is on the committee that will make the change, "but I think it's going to cause tremendous confusion."

For the Democratic Party, though, there are big advantages to the new schedule. It is meant to expand the pool of voters who have an early, and often definitive, say in who the candidate will be. Iowa and New Hampshire are small, northern and largely white; the new states to be added are intended to broaden the field and bring Hispanics and blacks into the process. Once reliably Republican, the Southwest is increasingly becoming a bloc of swing states, crucial to Democratic hopes for the White House. Officially, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada are all in the running for the Sun Belt spot, but the last two are most favored.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has been lobbying members of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee, which will decide. "He's working it hard," says one committee member, "and Nevada did a fantastic job when they did their presentation." But Arizona's charismatic governor, Janet Napolitano, has been on the attack as well. "Napolitano is putting everything but the kitchen sink in there," says committee member Donna Brazile.

South Carolina is struggling to hold its traditional importance as a key state in the first round of primaries to follow New Hampshire. Now it is competing against Alabama for that spot. While South Carolina offers a strong African-American contingent, Alabama has more union members, another key factor in the decision-making at the DNC. But even if South Carolina wins, it will suffer a loss under the new schedule, since it will now follow the new southwestern primary.

Democratic officials are trying to soften the blow by giving South Carolina, if it wins the No. 4 spot, the week to itself, rather than sharing the primary day with more than a half-dozen other states, as it did in 2004. That's not convincing many. "South Carolina had become the make-or-break place for people who had survived the first hurdles," says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "So anything that gets inserted in between is not good news."

And Fowler's concern about chaos could be prophetic. New Hampshire is sore, and there's been speculation that the state might move its primary up. A state law requires that New Hampshire's vote must take place seven days before a "similar election." But it's not clear what action the state might take — or what other states, or the DNC, might do in response. "I don't think it can be controlled," says Fowler. "I think other states are going to move their votes at their discretion, and I think it's going to be a mess in '08. I think it's going to reflect badly on the party."