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States may force megaprimary, winnow the 2008 field early

19 states look to have early say in '08 race

WASHINGTON -- States with more than half the nation's population are zeroing in on Feb. 5 next year to stage their presidential primaries, creating a single day that could determine the major party nominees at a historically early point in the process.

At least 19 states have moved or are considering moving their primaries to the first Tuesday in February -- contests that would follow earlier ones in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. If only the 10 largest of the 19 states move their primaries to Feb. 5, more than half the American population will have a chance to go to the polls on the same day, creating a one-day election that would become the prime focus of the campaign.

The trend would mark the biggest change in the presidential nominating process in decades. It would mean that presidential candidates would need to raise massive amounts of money -- at least $100 million before the first vote is cast, according to analysts in both parties -- and may see their chances of success evaporate at a stage when the contenders in past presidential contests were still introducing themselves to American voters.

"It's insane. It's going to be a de facto national primary," said Rich Bond , a GOP consultant and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "It's going to mean that the candidates with the highest name recognition and the most cash on hand are going to have a huge advantage over the rest of the field."

Both political parties are trying to keep the states from front loading the primary schedule. Republicans in 2004 approved rules to penalize states that hold primaries before Feb. 5 or after July 28, 2008. Democrats have both incentives and punishments to keep states in line.

But state legislatures don't want to be what California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger deemed an "afterthought" in the presidential campaigns, with their primaries held long after the nominees are determined for both parties.

"For the larger states, particularly California and Texas, the primary process has been pretty much over by the time they held their primaries -- it really has made them much less of a player," said Bruce Merrill , a pollster at Arizona State University. "Now, all of a sudden, other states are saying, 'Why shouldn't we get a piece of the action?' "

Political scientists said the revisions to the primary calendar would represent another sea change in electoral politics. National political conventions, which at one time were key to selection of the nominees, have been strictly ceremonial for three decades, with the nominees determined long before delegates gathered.

Campaigns became decreasingly competitive as states began clustering their primaries earlier in the process. Since 1988, a single nominee has emerged quickly after the "Super Tuesday" series of March primaries in the South, noted Dennis W. Johnson , professor of political management at George Washington University.

Speeding up the process even more will make it harder for second-tier candidates to make a successful run for the White House, Johnson said. "When you front load everything, it wipes away every chance for a dark horse or somebody who emerges after three or four months," Johnson said. "You have to have an extraordinary amount of money and an extraordinary amount of popularity" to attract so many supporters so quickly, he said.

Bill Clinton, for example, was virtually unknown outside his state of Arkansas at this stage in 1991, but slowly built momentum that carried him all the way to the White House.

Such a candidate would have a hard time trying to compete early in large states where television advertising is essential and expected, said John Zogby , a pollster in upstate New York. But Clinton's wife, Senator Hillary Clinton , is well-positioned to compete in the current campaign, because she is an adept fund-raiser and enjoys near-universal name recognition, political analysts said.

"It means ultimately the primaries are in 2007," Zogby said. "It's about fund-raising and scaring the bejesus out of as many candidates as you can." Even if a long-shot contender were to win an early contest in New Hampshire or Iowa, "You can't possibly raise enough money in a week or 10 days to take you through the final countdown" that could occur Feb. 5, he said.

The best chance for such a candidate would be to focus on a few prime targets, hoping that better-funded contenders divide the votes elsewhere. Such an outcome at least would allow the race to extend beyond Feb. 5, said Bill Carrick, a Democratic political consultant based in California.

Many candidates could be running in their home states on Feb. 5, which might diminish the chances of one contender running away with the nomination.

New York, which used to have its primary in April, is mulling a jump to Feb. 5, a move Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer said could boost the chances of two New Yorkers, Senator Clinton and Republican Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York . Illinois is eyeing the date as well, a switch that could help Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.

North Carolina is considering legislation to move its primary to Feb. 5, a proposal that could help John Edwards, a former US senator from the Tarheel State. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee could benefit from his state's move from a May primary to Feb. 5. Kansas may also change its primary date, giving some hope to its native son, Senator Sam Brownback , who is trailing in polls for the GOP nomination. A possible Feb. 5 primary in New Mexico could do the same favor for the state's governor and Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Richardson .

Other states that have moved, or are considering moving, to Feb. 5 are literally all over the map: Arizona, Alabama, California, New Jersey, Utah, West Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, and Delaware.

New Hampshire officials have bemoaned what they see as efforts to crowd their state's primary, diminishing its traditional role as a bellwether; Secretary of State William M. Gardner has said he will decide in the fall when to schedule the state's first-in-the-nation primary.

The Iowa caucuses will precede the New Hampshire primary, and South Carolina's primary will immediately follow it. Democratic caucuses in Nevada are currently scheduled between Iowa and New Hampshire. After those four contests will come Feb. 5, a possible juggernaut.

While some analysts believe that well-funded candidates can now afford to suffer setbacks in the early states while marshaling their superior resources for Feb. 5, Carrick , for one, said the glut of primaries could actually heighten the importance of the early contests.

"The only way you're going to generate any momentum is in those first states," he said. "Iowa and New Hampshire have become even bigger deals."

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