Alabama eyes February 2 primary

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Alabama's presidential primary next year is expected to be moved up to Feb. 2, a Saturday in advance of the increasingly crowded lineup of states on Feb. 5.

Democratic and Republican leaders said Monday they are working together on a bill to move the primary away from Feb. 5, 2008 -- which happens to fall on Fat Tuesday, a major Mardi Gras holiday on the Alabama coast. That change would put it right on the heels of South Carolina as an early test of candidate strength in the South.

Feb. 2 will distinguish Alabama from states choosing Feb. 5, and it will test how Alabamians like voting on a Saturday rather than the state's traditional Tuesday, House Majority Leader Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, said.

Legislation last year moved Alabama's primary to Feb. 5 and got presidential candidates to visit the state after years of ignoring it. With other states joining the Feb. 5 crowd, they decided to move it to an even earlier date so Alabama would "be a player no matter what," said House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, who is also chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

That may be optimistic thinking considering how many bigger states are looking at early February for their primaries.

"When one state moves, another state moves. There is no way Alabama can guarantee itself a critical vote," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina.

The current presidential lineup starts with the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, followed by the New Hampshire primary. Then candidates head to South Carolina, which has a split primary with Democrats on Jan. 29 and Republicans on Feb. 2. But GOP officials in South Carolina are looking at moving up their date.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made a campaign swing through South Carolina and Alabama on Friday and said "it's critical" to have a strong showing in both.

"These states have the kinds of values that are key in America and particularly important in a Republican primary," he said.

Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain have been the most active Republican contenders in Alabama, with each making three trips. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has visited once. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has not visited, but has told party officials he will, Hubbard said.

On the Democratic side, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and retired Gen. Wesley Clark have visited. Supporters of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama expect him soon for a reception. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has had not visited or announced any campaign organization.

The candidates' activity in Alabama is much different from recent presidential elections, when Alabama was ignored because its June presidential primary came at the end of the primary season -- long after candidates had their parties' nominations locked up.

Last April, the Democratic and Republican parties worked together to get the Legislature to move up the primary behind South Carolina. Guin and Hubbard said they will sponsor a bill for a primary on Feb. 2 when the Legislature reconvenes in March.

State Attorney General Troy King said he never submitted the Feb. 5 legislation to the Justice Department for approval under the 1965 Voting Rights Act because he expected the Legislature to change it. He said he foresees no problems getting Justice Department approval for Feb. 2 because the primary would not disenfranchise any voters.

William Stewart, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, said the closeness of Alabama's primary to South Carolina's is an asset for candidates. A candidate who stumbles in South Carolina will have an opportunity to recover quickly in Alabama, he said.

And if a candidate "does well in both states, they could start a trend going," he said.

Candidates have made it clear that their interest in Alabama is tied to the date change.

The Democrats' Kerry-Edwards ticket ignored Alabama in 2004. But Edwards took his campaign to Birmingham shortly after entering the race and said Alabama would play a more significant role in his 2008 campaign than it did in 2004.

"I was not the presidential candidate three years ago," he said.

The attention on Alabama may not last.

Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona and Utah are already planning primaries for Feb. 5. California, New Jersey, Illinois and other states are looking at moving up to early February.

"So many states are moving up to early February that it's not quite like a national primary, but it's close," said Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina.

Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University and an expert in Southern politics, said a move by California and other large states would be bad for Alabama.

"If that happens, Alabama is still in the backwater," he said.