Bipartisanship? Maybe on saner primary dates

Feb 4 2010 - 10:39am

Amid all of Washington's bitter partisanship, one area has emerged where Republicans and Democrats are working together to produce a common result.

It won't cut the deficit or guarantee Americans health care. But it would shorten the 2012 presidential primary season and prevent a repeat of the 2008 cycle, when candidates spent the 2007 Christmas holidays bashing one another in Iowa and New Hampshire.

That situation drew widespread condemnation and finally may have prompted the two parties to reverse the trend toward earlier and earlier contests every four years.

But any agreement would require some 40 of the 50 states to change their primary laws or caucus dates so most contests would take place, as they once did, between early March and early June.

The big question is whether they would do that, even with pressure from the national parties.

Even Texas, whose current date would fit proposed new schedule, may feel compelled to move its primary if a raft of contests joined it on the first Tuesday in March.

For some months, separate panels in each party have been working to draft proposals to submit next summer and fall to their national committees. For the first time, they are working in tandem, conferring periodically and considering plans with identical primary schedules.

They would allow four states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- to hold caucuses or primaries in February and require the others to wait until the first Tuesday in March. In 2008, seven states held caucuses or primaries in January, starting with Iowa on Jan. 3, and 34 more in February, including 23 states on Feb. 5.

What made cooperation possible was a little-noticed decision, taken by Republican National Convention delegates without debate in 2008, to let the party revise the calendar during the period between conventions. Previously, Republican rules barred that, meaning that any changes the Democrats made influenced the process for both parties.

"Never before have the two parties been in a position to act together," said David Norcross, longtime Republican National Committee Rules Committee chair and a member of the party's special panel. "There is reason to believe we may actually be able to recommend the same thing to our two parties."

The Democrats already have taken the first step. A special panel created at their 2008 convention approved the proposal to change the calendar and voted to require that the party's "super delegates" -- the elected and appointed officials guaranteed automatic seats -- reflect their states' primary and caucus results.

The party's Rules and Bylaws Commission will review those recommendations Friday. But the full Democratic National Committee won't act on them until the fall. Under terms set by the GOP convention, the Republican National Committee would have to approve any changes by this summer.

Initially, changes probably would affect the GOP more than the Democrats, since Republicans may have the only nominating contest in 2012, barring an unexpected primary challenge to President Barack Obama. Lest anyone consider this premature, it's already halfway between the 2008 primaries and the 2012 tests.

The Republican panel also is discussing whether to include provisions encouraging states to group their primaries, either regionally or in some other way. In addition, there is talk of prodding states to schedule later primary dates by barring winner-take-all contests and requiring proportional division of delegates anywhere that opts for an early date.

One reason the 2008 Democratic race between Obama and Hillary Clinton lasted so long is that Democrats divide delegates proportionally. That reduces the advantage to the primary winner. By contrast, winner-take-all rules make it easier for the front-runner to clinch the nomination.

And some Republicans believe the lengthy Democratic contest helped Obama in the fall by requiring him and Clinton to build organizations in so many states.

The current effort also could mark the end of efforts to remove the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary from their traditional positions at the start of the process.

Past efforts have shown such efforts don't succeed. And the two states, while important in narrowing the field, often have not determined the outcome unless the same candidate won both.

Carl Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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