Presidential candidates are about to get just what they don't need and don't want _ a crush of primaries and caucuses leading off the 2008 campaign calendar.
Some of the biggest states are racing to place their primaries near the front of the 2008 primary lineup, including California, Florida, New Jersey and possibly Illinois. That's likely to create a crowded first Tuesday in February.
"It looks like we will have a very fast primary season," said Elaine Kamarck, a veteran Democratic activist. "States that are moving up early will just form one big national primary."
It also means that only a month after the Iowa caucuses kick off the presidential nominating season on Jan. 14, the contests for the Democratic and Republican nominations will be effectively decided.
No one thinks that's a good idea _ not the candidates, not the parties and not the voters. It ratchets up the pressure on candidates to get in the race early and raise unprecedented amounts of money. Political strategists frequently cite $100 million as roughly the amount each presidential candidate will need to raise in 2007 to compete effectively in a compressed 2008 primary season.
One reason for the big bucks is that candidates will need to be ready to shift quickly from relatively cheap, personal politicking in small population states like Iowa and New Hampshire to expensive, message-driven advertising in big population states. Add to that the expense of mobilizing legions of forces on the ground.
"It means that you need a ton of money just to get to the starting line," said Susan Estrich, who managed 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis' campaign. "The old days in which you would win early and then look to build an organization and put it all together are gone."
Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Clinton White House and Al Gore's 2000 campaign, said the new primary and caucus calendar has heightened the already outsized importance of what is a relatively small number of states whose demographics don't reflect the nation at large.
The tentative nominating schedule begins in January with caucuses in Iowa and then Nevada (for the Democrats only), followed quickly by primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina (for Democrats on Jan. 29 and Republicans on Feb. 2).
"Iowa will effectively identify who is in and who is out, while New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina and perhaps others will in a very, very short time period designate a winner," Lehane said.
That's reason for concern, he said, noting that in 1992, Bill Clinton _ the eventual Democratic nominee _ didn't win a single contest until several weeks after the New Hampshire primary.
"If 1992 was front-loaded like 2008, the nominee could have been Paul Tsongas or Jerry Brown," Lehane said. "The front-loaded process means a candidate could emerge the winner who is not truly tested, vetted or up to the rigors of a national campaign."
But in a kind of political arms race, officials in the states that want to move forward in the calendar say they fear that if they don't act, their state's voters will be left out except for whatever money they might donate.
"People are tired of California being used as an ATM to finance campaigns for the rest of country," said Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a Democrat working with the state's GOP governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to move the state's primary from June to either Feb. 5 or Feb. 12.
"The last few (elections), it's been a done deal by the time it gets to the biggest state in the country," Maviglio said. "We want to have a say on the front end."
Efforts by leading Democrats to lure states later in the calendar with the promise of bonus delegates are being overwhelmed by the states' desire to go early. The proposed system would give bonus delegates to states that agreed to keep their contests in April or May, or to move their contests back to those months.
Democrats have received little early response to that bonus delegate plan. The full Democratic National Committee will vote on the plan at its winter meeting in early February.
Democratic rules panel co-chairman James Roosevelt said some states "may be waiting to see what happens" before offering to move contests later and collect bonus delegates.
Six states, as well as South Carolina, held Democratic presidential contests on the first Tuesday in February 2004 _ Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oklahoma. Those states plan to hold contests in early February 2008, though some, like Arizona and North Dakota, haven't decided exactly what day.
Among the other states that have moved up to the first Tuesday (Feb. 5, 2008) or are considering doing so are Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina and Utah.
Republican Party officials were less willing to discuss the effects of a compressed primary calendar.
"We set the parameters for when states may select delegates, but we don't handicap what the impact of the calendar may be," said Republican National Committee spokesman Brian Jones.
Don Fowler, a former national chairman of the Democratic National Committee, cautioned that political parties can't control what happens during a primary season.
"It always turns out different than they planned," said Fowler, who refers to that as "the law of unintended consequences."
And one of the biggest outstanding questions is what New Hampshire will do.
Democrats wedged the Nevada caucuses in front of the state where presidential primaries are almost a religion _ a move that upset many in that state.
New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner will decide whether he must move up the state's primary to comply with a New Hampshire law that requires it to be scheduled a week or more before any "similar election."
"New Hampshire won't have a date until the fall and it's pretty flexible for us once we see what gets moved around," said Gardner, who has not said whether he considers the Nevada caucuses "a similar election."
His decision could turn the entire presidential calendar upside down.
On the Net:
Democratic National Committee: http://www.dnc.org
Republican National Committee: http://www.rnc.org