Opinion

Doing the primary shuffle

South Carolina's Republican Party wasn't going to get blindsided by Florida without doing something about it. So, in the battle to see who can hold the earliest presidential primary, the S.C. GOP moved its primary back from Feb. 2 to Jan. 19.

Despite the fact that this contributes to the looniest presidential primary schedule in the nation's history, we salute the Republicans' -- and their party chairman, Katon Dawson -- for their spunk. Take that, Sunshine State.

South Carolina's calendar change was precipitated by Florida's decision to hold its primary on Jan. 29, the same day as South Carolina's Democratic primary and four days before the South Carolina Republican primary originally had been scheduled. (South Carolina's Democratic party officials have decided to leave the calendar alone so as not to risk the ire of the national party, which has threatened to bar S.C. delegates if the primary date is changed.)

S.C. Republicans, however, were intent on holding the first Southern primary in the nation, which was the original intent of the primary schedule agreed upon by both national parties. Under that plan, the South Carolina primary contests would have made the state the fourth primary battleground of the season, following the traditional caucus in Iowa, a new caucus in Nevada and the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire. Other states could hold their caucuses or primaries no earlier than Feb. 5, 2008, under the plan.

But the jockeying by Florida and South Carolina's Republicans may prompt other states to schedule earlier primaries. Iowa law requires its state to be at least eight days before any other caucus or primary. New Hampshire law requires that only Iowa hold a caucus or primary before it and that no other state be within seven days of New Hampshire's primary.

Speculation now is that New Hampshire will choose either Jan. 12 or Jan. 8 for its primary. Some scenarios have Iowa's caucus moving to mid-December.

This is crazy. Voters could be casting ballots for presidential candidates in the calendar year before the election occurs. The parties might nail down their respective presidential candidates by mid-February.

That leaves a long, long time until the summer nominating conventions and even longer until the election itself. Can the candidates sustain the voters' interest for more than nine months?

The larger question may be: Is this the best way to choose the leader of the free world? Unfortunately, while it clearly isn't, no simple alternatives present themselves -- especially as long as Iowa and New Hampshire remain intent on going first.

Some have suggested a national primary day in which voters in every state cast ballots on the same day. That sounds tidy, but it undoubtedly would prompt candidates to concentrate on vote-rich states such as New York and California. The cost of national campaign ads would be prohibitive for under-financed candidates. This system practically eliminates the possibility of a dark horse slowly gaining popularity with voters and coming from behind to win.

Maybe if national party officials sanction Florida, other states will fall in line. The best alternative may be to give the national party leaders authority to establish a reasonable schedule that allows voters from all regions of the country to play a meaningful role.

Clearly, however, we don't need to be choosing nominees nearly a year before the election and only a few months after voters have really started to pay attention to presidential politics.

IN SUMMARY

The race to hold early primaries has created a schedule where some may be voting in December.

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