Chicago Democrats shook up tradition Saturday by vaulting Nevada and South Carolina into the first wave of 2008 presidential contests along with Iowa and New Hampshire - a move intended to add racial and geographic diversity to the early voting.
The decision by the Democratic National Committee leaves Iowa as the nation's first presidential caucus and New Hampshire as the first primary, but wedges Nevada's caucuses before New Hampshire and South Carolina's primary soon afterward.
The move also packs all four state contests into a politically saturated two weeks in January. The change means a potentially huge cast of Democratic presidential candidates could winnow quickly by the beginning of February.
Party officials embraced the change, though New Hampshire Democrats joined several likely presidential candidates and former President Clinton in opposing the move.
"It's an opportunity for the candidates to speak in a broader way to Democrats across the country," said Alexis M. Herman, co-chairman of the DNC's rules committee that drafted the change. "It will be a plus for the candidates and I think they will take advantage of it."
Driving the decision to alter the schedule was a long-held worry within the party that Iowa and New Hampshire, which are predominantly white, were not representative of the country's population and key Democratic constituencies. Blacks and Hispanics have complained they haven't had an adequate voice in the early contests.
In choosing to squeeze Nevada caucuses between Iowa's Jan. 14 caucus and New Hampshire's Jan. 22 primary, party leaders kept in mind the state's large Hispanic population as well as its heavy labor union presence.
South Carolina, with its large black population, could hold its primary as early as Jan. 29.
But the primary calendar may not be final.
New Hampshire objected loudly to the lineup and has threatened to leapfrog over the other contests to retain its pre-eminent role.
"The DNC did not give New Hampshire its primary, and it is not taking it away," New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch said.
Secretary of State William Gardner, also a Democrat, emphasized again Saturday that it will be his office, not Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who picks the state's primary date.
"That's going to be based on state law, and it will be a date that honors the tradition," Gardner said after the DNC action. "It appears that he's in the driver's seat taking the Democratic National Committee on a collision course with the New Hampshire tradition."