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Timing is Everything

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State legislatures are falling all over themselves these days to move their states' presidential primaries up to February 5, making for one very Super Tuesday. Nine states, including Missouri, are set to hold their primaries on that date.

At least 11 more, including such major prizes as California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Texas, may do so as well, raising the prospect that as many as half of the nation's voters will have cast their ballots within three weeks and a day of the January 14 Iowa caucuses and two weeks after the New Hampshire primary. Delegate-rich Super Tuesday could become the Powerball Primary.

By moving up their presidential contests, the states are hoping that they will attract the up-close-and-personal treatment that the presidential candidates and the national news media lavish on Iowa and New Hampshire. What these states do not realize is that they're trading their later dates for only a small chance of being a big player.

The first Tuesday in February is heading toward becoming national primary day, with half of the country participating and none of the states getting the individual attention they all crave. By holding off, they would retain the possibility of being a deciding factor.

Making February 5 the Powerball Primary means that having plenty of money and momentum before that date becomes even more important. It also raises the already enormous stakes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Success in Iowa and New Hampshire can propel the winner in a way that has been compared to that of a slingshot or catapult. Winning Iowa gives a candidate an explosive burst of momentum going into New Hampshire.

Any candidate who claims both states is virtually unstoppable, but winning in Iowa doesn't make triumph in New Hampshire inevitable. Hawkeye State victors can be crushed in the Granite State -- just ask George H.W. Bush. He beat Ronald Reagan in Iowa in 1980 only to have the tables turned on him in New Hampshire.

Or ask Bob Dole, who beat Bush in Iowa in 1988 only to lose to him in New Hampshire. Or, for that matter, ask Dick Gephardt, who defeated Michael Dukakis in Iowa in 1988 but then lost to him in New Hampshire.

That said, the arithmetic is pretty telling. Starting in 1976, the candidates placing first in Iowa went on to win six of eight Democratic and six of eight Republican primaries in New Hampshire. Likewise, 75 percent of the Iowa winners became their parties' nominees.

In fact, in 1992 Bill Clinton became the only major-party candidate in more than half a century to be elected president without winning either the Iowa caucuses (having deferred to home-state Sen. Tom Harkin) or the New Hampshire primary, having narrowly lost to Sen. Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts.

Every other state in the union could pile their contests into the two weeks after the New Hampshire primary and that would only enhance the impact of Iowa and New Hampshire. Nevertheless, any of three curveballs could add new elements of unpredictability to the 2008 contests.

First, New Hampshire, feeling threatened by all the frontloading, could move its primary up. Iowa, in turn, would likely feel forced to advance its caucuses. And some observers have suggested, only half-jokingly, that Iowa hold them before Christmas.

Second, assuming that Iowa and New Hampshire stay put, what about the newer kids on the block? What impact will Nevada's Democratic caucuses, slated for January 19, have on New Hampshire?

Third, again assuming that Iowa and New Hampshire don't move, what effect will South Carolina's primaries (set for January 29 for the Democrats and February 2 for the Republicans) have?

They're now sandwiched between the January 22 New Hampshire primary and the February 5 Powerball Primary. Neither Nevada nor South Carolina is expected to be as important as Iowa or New Hampshire, but every campaign and national media organization is asking itself: "How many resources should be allocated to them?"

To win the Powerball Primary, candidates first have to survive until February 5. So, for now, the states moving to the first Tuesday in February remain an afterthought for campaign strategists.

 
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