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Democrats are poised to realign primary schedule

S.C. and Nevada likely to be added to early contests

CHICAGO -- Democrats are laying aside the debate over issues and philosophy and turning to something more prosaic -- realigning the political calendar -- as a way to boost the party's White House prospects in 2008.

Barring a last-minute shift, Democratic leaders meeting in Chicago this weekend are expected to add Nevada and South Carolina to the states that hold early primaries, alongside the perennials, Iowa and New Hampshire.

The move is the main business at the Democratic National Committee's summer meeting, which opened Thursday in Chicago.

The scheduling changes, which have already been approved by the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee, are set for a vote by the full DNC today. It would amount to the most significant change in the presidential nominating process in years and hasten the front-loading that has already transformed the contest from a monthslong slog into a sprint lasting just a few weeks.

Many political observers in Iowa and New Hampshire bitterly oppose the change. There is even talk of pushing the Iowa and New Hampshire balloting into late 2007 to leapfrog any interlopers and preserve New Hampshire's historic preeminence.

DNC officials said the party may penalize any candidate who sets foot in a state that flouts the new scheduling rules.

``If you campaign in a state that is outside the rules, then you're not entitled to delegates from that state," said Carol Khare Fowler, a rules committee member from South Carolina who offered the change.

Several DNC members said Senators John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Evan Bayh of Indiana, Democrats who are weighing presidential runs, were encouraging their supporters on the DNC to vote against the rules change.

But even Kathleen Sullivan, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman and a member of the rules committee, predicted the changes would pass.

The new schedule also has produced more than a few knocks on Nevada and the style of life associated with Las Vegas.

``It is said that the Democratic Party has a moral values problem," Ken Bode, a political analyst at DePauw University, wrote in a recent Indianapolis Star commentary. ``Adding images of flying dice and spinning slot machines with the surrounding sex industry isn't likely to help."

But leaders of the national party appear undeterred.

``Including two more states will not only be good for our country, it will be good for our party and good for our nominee," said Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist and one of the leading advocates for the calendar change. ``It will be good for them to get out to other regions, rather than spending the next 18 months in two small states."

Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy storied political histories, but critics say the two lack the ethnic diversity and metropolitan texture needed to produce well-rounded presidential nominees. Roughly 95 percent of the population of Iowa and New Hampshire is white, and nearly 30 percent of South Carolina residents are black, according to the most recent US census data.

Moreover, Democrats are eyeing the West as a key battleground, after the party's gains across the Rocky Mountain region in 2004.

With Nevada in the early mix, `` Western issues will be more in focus than they have been in the past," said Mike Stratton, a Colorado-based Democratic strategist who served on the commission that recommended the scheduling changes.

Winning just two or three more Western states, with Nevada and New Mexico the most promising, would assuredly put a Democrat in the White House in 2008, Stratton said.

After debating the matter at length in July, the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee recommended elevating Nevada and South Carolina over several states bidding to join the early voting.

The Iowa caucuses would open the nominating process on Jan. 14, 2008, followed five days later by caucuses in Nevada. New Hampshire would hold the first primary, on Jan. 22, 2008, followed a week later by South Carolina.

The move to squeeze Nevada between Iowa and New Hampshire has brought protest, especially from New Hampshire. New Hampshire's primary has been a dominant event on the nominating calendar since 1952, and the Granite State zealously guards its position. In 1975, under threat from other states eager to share the limelight, legislators passed a law requiring at least a seven-day buffer between its primary and any ``similar election."

Democratic Party leaders said they have respected New Hampshire's law by assigning Nevada a caucus, which has different rules than a primary.

But speaking from his office in Concord earlier this week, New Hampshire's secretary of state, Bill Gardner, said he saw little distinction. He is responsible for scheduling New Hampshire's primary and intimated that he would hold the contest in 2007 if needed to preserve the state's mandatory cushion.

``I've always . . . set a time that would respect our tradition," Gardner said, ``and I intend to do it the same way I've done it."

The Republican Party has its own rules for the nominating process, established at its 2004 national convention. States have a window between Feb. 5, 2008, and July 28, 2008, to hold their nominating contests. A party spokeswoman, Tracey Schmitt, said there would be no effort by the national GOP to coordinate with Democrats.

``We let each state decide when they'll be having their respective caucus or primary," Schmitt said.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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