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Democrats revisit primaries

Group examines leadoff advantage for N.H., Iowa

WASHINGTON -- Iowa and New Hampshire, combined, have 4.2 million people, just 1.5 percent of the US population.

Yet Democratic presidential candidates spent months and millions of dollars in those two states before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in 2004, the first events in the long march to the party nomination.

Does it make sense to spend so much time and money to reach such a small fraction of the electorate? Should other states get a chance to hold the first contests in an election cycle? A Democratic commission has been examining those questions and other aspects of the primary calendar this weekend in Washington.

Iowa and New Hampshire have outmaneuvered critics to hold their leadoff positions during the last quarter-century. Other states have demonstrated increasing frustration by crowding closer to the start of the calendar.

''States have been moving up toward early March, looking for their place in the sun," said Representative David Price of North Carolina, cochairman of the commission.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter used the Iowa caucuses as a launching pad for his underdog candidacy and followed with a win in New Hampshire. In 2004, John F. Kerry delivered a one-two punch to one-time front-runner Howard Dean with victories in both states.

Iowa and New Hampshire have defended their role by emphasizing the importance of retail politics in small states: door-to-door, face-to-face campaigning.

''One of the things that is so effective about a state like New Hampshire going early is having a highly engaged electorate," said Jeanne Shaheen, a commission member and former governor of the state. New Hampshire has a law requiring that its presidential primary be held before any similar contest in another state.

''It would be just horrible to lose the retail politics you have in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Roxanne Conlin, an attorney from Des Moines who is a commission member.

The most vocal critic of allowing Iowa and New Hampshire to lead off is Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, whose strong complaints before the last election led to yesterday's commission meeting. Critics complain that the calendar for primaries is unfair and point out that Iowa and New Hampshire have little racial diversity.

''An awful lot of states believe they engage in retail politics," Levin told the commission. ''Different states with different interests have people who feel left out. Should we always have the same two states with a disproportionate impact?"

Levin and other critics of the system say voters in states with later primaries feel irrelevant and are not motivated to get involved in politics.

Several commission members from Western states said that while states in their region are increasingly competitive for Democrats, the current calendar discourages voters from getting involved.

The commission plans to work on the primary calendar throughout 2005.

Some members acknowledge that making widespread changes could be difficult because they can require legislative action in some states. Also, the national Democratic Party has little power to force states to follow its calendar rules.

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