Out on a Limb: Frontloading blues
Democratic presidential candidate, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, right, makes his opening remarks at a candidates forum held by AFSCME in Carson City, Nev., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007. At left is George Stephanopoulos, the forum moderator. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Tom Vilsack (D)
Former Gov., IA
Born: 12/13/1950
Birthplace: Pittsburgh, PA
Religion: Catholic
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Tom Vilsack, we hardly knew you. The two-term Iowa governor, who was making a serious bid to become the trendy, dark horse pick in the 2008 presidential primary, withdrew from the race Feb. 23 -- about 11 months before the first votes will be cast in our first-in-the-galaxy political rodeo.

Vilsack had a plan that included winning his home state Iowa caucuses and then sailing into New Hampshire with momentum, some good publicity and a grassroots organizing effort that would bloom at the right moment. He likely knew the history as well -- Americans have been on a binge of electing governors to the White House. Since 1976, there have been eight presidential elections and former or sitting governors have won seven.

"When I first began this campaign, my wife likened it to Magellan's efforts: The boat was at the pier, it was loaded, and the only choice was whether to get in the boat," Vilsack said just recently. "We got in the boat, but now it's time to bring the boat back and get out of the race." His metaphorical voyage of discovery didn't get very far due to a simple calculation of 21st century politics -- this high-stakes poker game has a steep buy-in, and without buckets and buckets of cash and the ability to raise even more buckets, the ship can't leave port.

To his credit, Vilsack -- like Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner before him -- saw he was sailing against some well-financed and well-publicized destroyers (see S.S. Hillary Clinton and S.S. Barack Obama) and establishment cruisers with solid reputations. He got out before literally mortgaging the house away. This was a battle that needed more moolah than luck and pluck.

"Effort and hard work are not enough," Vilsack said. "It's about the money, and with states moving (their primaries and caucuses) up on the calendar, the premium on money became higher."

The main villain is primary frontloading, the result of a long-simmering jealousy fit on the part of states that are tired of Iowa and New Hampshire hogging all the early season fun, publicity and candidates. There's no shortage of envy out there. States that have moved or are considering moving their primaries or caucuses to early February 2008, less than two weeks after our primary, include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah.

This is a major epidemic of pack mentality and also shows the Democratic Party at its entertaining best as a circular firing squad. Many political wise guys and gals believe there's no doubt the Democratic primary season will be finished by mid-February 2008, and this time they may be right -- maybe Guam will be the last significant contest remaining.

Kathy Sullivan, chairwoman of the N.H. Democratic Party, was annoyed enough by Vilsack's abrupt departure to chastise the national parties and challenge them "to stop the frontloading of the primary calendar so candidates can have a chance to raise the funds they need. How many qualified and dynamic leaders do we have to lose in this race before something is done?"

Another state party official told me sotto voce that the Democratic National Committee has taken "a Band Aid-approach to a massive problem." The unknown factor is this: Will Democratic voters be ill or better served by a primary season traffic jam?

When I talked to the DNC, a spokeswoman told me it wishes the schedule was less crowded, but is essentially powerless to do anything.

"Every (primary) calendar is different," said the DNC's Stacie Paxton. While not preferable, the frontloading gridlock "is within the rules." The DNC set up a Feb. 5 storm barrier to keep the calendar from moving into 2007 -- Iowa and Nevada can have their caucuses before the N.H. primary, followed by South Carolina and then the Feb. 5 slugfest, which will likely be known as Mega Tuesday (to distinguish itself from the formerly important Southern-based Super Tuesday).

The DNC does have a carrot-and-stick primary approach. The stick is major. Any state crossing the Feb. 5 boundary, for example, will be punished with a loss of delegates and eternal study hall detention. The carrot, Paxton told me, is an incentive system for the states to play nice and set a later primary date. The prizes include extra delegates, a chance to have a date all to themselves and a free toaster.

But you can't legislate free will and you certainly can't regulate the envy of big states like California and Florida that feel used by the current primary system -- where candidates come mostly to raise funds to, for example, frolic in the New Hampshire playpen.

I've long wondered how long New Hampshire will retain its first-in-the-universe stature. I've expected the proverbial sheriff to knock on the door and say, "The jig is up." We know New Hampshire has a law saying it must have the first, but what happens if another state does the same? I've even imagined a major candidate giving the state a cursory glance and deciding to focus on a bigger, more seductive state.

Not too worry, Andy Smith, the director at the University of the New Hampshire Survey Center, told me. The cruel irony for the front loaders knocking on the door is that they may end up making themselves even more irrelevant.

"It sounds counterintuitive, but the frontloading makes Iowa and New Hampshire even more prominent," Smith said. "Winning New Hampshire will become more important, because it will be like a stack of dominoes falling. There's no time between primaries for candidates to recover."

As an example, Smith cited George W. Bush and his abysmal N.H. primary campaign, which led to John McCain's upset victory. Bush had time to inflate his meager credentials (he became a "Reformer with Results" to counter McCain's reformer narrative) and triumphed in South Carolina following a scorched-earth campaign that set a new standard for cheap tactics.

Candidates won't dare to bypass New Hampshire, Smith said, because of the primary's tradition, the fact that voters actually cast ballots ("caucuses are weird and squirrely") and, most important of all for press vultures such as yours truly, the "media expect candidates to compete here because it is so easy to cover." In other words, Smith said, our primary may become a poker match with an "all-in-on-the-first-hand" candidate gamble for the entire nominating process. If that scenario doesn't enrage the frontloading intruders, I don't know what will.

Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of the Herald Sunday and the Portsmouth Herald.