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Archive for Friday, August 24, 2007

Nomination reform not easy

August 24, 2007

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When the Democratic Party's rules and bylaws committee meets this weekend, it will focus on whether to penalize Florida for scheduling an early presidential primary.

But rules experts in both parties are already beginning to look ahead at ways to fix the nominating system for 2012.

Seeking more influence, Florida moved its primary to Jan. 29, entering the time period the party had reserved for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Michigan also seems about to violate the rules by moving to Jan. 15.

As a result, New Hampshire is likely to move its primary from Jan. 22 to Jan. 8. Iowa will hold its caucuses before that. Each party will decide nearly half of its delegates by Feb. 5.

For years, every effort to fix the system has only made things worse. Now, it's not only too late to put that genie back in the bottle for 2008, there's not much time to fix the mess by 2012.

"This might be the last gasp of the current system," says veteran Democratic activist Mark Siegel. "The question is: What are the parties going to do about it?"

To do something, they'd have to start by spring. Republicans set their rules four years ahead, so next September's Republican National Convention would have to approve any 2012 changes. The Democrats can wait, but, ultimately, both parties have to agree.

In the first sign that something might actually happen, a top Republican rules expert said this week that GOP officials hope to push approval next year of the so-called Delaware plan. It divides the states into four groups by size and schedules primaries and caucuses at one-month intervals, starting in early March with the smallest ones and ending with the 12 biggest, including Texas.

It is designed to keep the nomination fight open until the big states vote, making more states meaningful players and taking away the advantage the best-known, most heavily funded candidates now have. Lesser-known hopefuls would be able to become contenders with strong showings in smaller, less expensive states.

And it would prevent one of the current system's biggest dangers, that someone could win a nomination without sufficient scrutiny.

Tom Sansonetti, who headed the GOP's rules committee when a similar effort was blocked in 2000 by Bush strategist Karl Rove, said he expects the rules panel to discuss the Delaware plan at January's Republican National Committee meeting.

And key officials involved in rules matters of both parties will join a panel next month organized by Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate and a longtime reform advocate.

They include Sansonetti; former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock, who headed the GOP panel that proposed the Delaware plan in 2000; and two key Democratic Party officials, Donna Brazile and James Roosevelt Jr. Roosevelt, who chairs the rules and bylaws committee meeting this weekend, said one purpose is to spur talks between the parties.

Some big states opposed the Delaware plan in 2000, and Mr. Rove reportedly vetoed it to avoid a rules fight at the GOP's Philadelphia convention. He also did not want to tinker with a system under which George W. Bush had won the nomination, Sansonetti said.

Adoption of the Delaware plan would require compromises. A key issue is whether Iowa and New Hampshire would keep their traditional places at the start of the process. Even if they did, their influence would be cut because the Iowa and New Hampshire winners wouldn't be able to use their momentum to clinch the nominations quickly.

Now, rivals who do poorly in those two states are often forced out of the race. But lengthening the process would give them a chance to rebound.

Three senators have proposed legislation creating a system of regional primaries. But that might be even harder to do.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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