Like A Rock

In politics, as in comedy -- assuming that they are distinct pursuits -- timing is everything, and right now the timing of both the candidates and the commentators contemplating the 2008 presidential election appears skewed. They are operating under the assumption that the New Hampshire primary will be next January 22. To borrow a term from Jimmy Durante, a comic with perfect timing, this could be a misahaprehension.

Some may recall that, to the delight of reformers who have been stewing for decades about the disproportionate influence of New Hampshire, the national Democratic Party finally stood up to the Granite State's, well, flintiness, and took stern steps toward diluting its power. Last summer the Democrats decided to change the political calendar which had been in place since (politically speaking) the Pleistocene Era, or 1984. Since then, the Iowa Precinct caucuses have been held on a winter Monday evening, the New Hampshire primary eight days later, and all other states have had to wait until after that for the opening of a "window" established by the national party.

Under the rule changes made in the summer, Iowa is to start the process next January 14. But then Nevada Democrats will hold caucuses the following Saturday, just three days before New Hampshire's primary, which will be followed a week later by a Democratic primary in South Carolina (in Nevada and South Carolina, the Republicans have not yet decided when to vote).

Very clever: Bracket all-but-all-white-and-Anglo New Hampshire with one state which is about 20 percent Hispanic and another almost 30 percent African-American, in one swoop diversifying the early going. To enforce the new calendar, the Democrats adopted a new rule: If a candidate were to run in a primary held earlier than allowed, the Democratic National Convention would not seat any delegates won by that candidate in that state.

New Hampshire is singularly unimpressed. It may yet bow to pressure to stick with the official schedule -- not every single politician in the state is urging defiance of the new rules. But even the few counseling patience are not endorsing the new rules, and it's hard to find anyone in the state, Democrat or Republican, who thinks the primary will actually occur as late as January 22. Democratic Governor John Lynch called the new rules the product of "a small group of party insiders … intent on undermining a presidential nominating tradition that has worked well for 50 years," and no one in the state has taken issue with him yet.

Technically, the new schedule complies with the New Hampshire law that requires the Secretary of State to set the primary "seven days or more" ahead of any "similar election." But as State Representative Jim Splaine of Portsmouth noted, "that law also allows (the secretary) to move our primary to any date he feels is necessary in order to protect the tradition of our lead-off status. That means he has all the flexibility he needs to move ahead of Iowa, and to make our primary the first event of the 2008 presidential election season."

Splaine speaks with some authority here. He wrote the law.

"I've told Bill Gardner, our Secretary of State, that I think he should put our primary on the Tuesday the day after the Iowa Caucus, which would be four days before Nevada, or the Tuesday six days prior to Iowa," Splaine said by e-mail. "I don't think we need to move earlier." But earlier has been discussed. "It's wide open," said Andy Leach, the executive director of the state Republican Party. "There are jokes, but grounded in reality, that it could be in December."

The law gives Gardner the power to set the date, and allows him to wait until late this year to do so. Gardner, a Democrat, has been in office since the 1970s, seems beholden to no one, and is so devoted to the New Hampshire primary that in 2003, he and former Governor Hugh Gregg, a Republican, wrote a book about it.

But what of that rule about the delegates? New Hampshire has two responses, which might be encapsulated, with New England terseness, as "Oh, yeah?" and "So what?"

The candidates will be challenged to pledge that they will support seating the delegates, regardless of the primary date. Why would any of them refuse? So far, no candidate has given any hint that he or she will skip the New Hampshire primary. The eventual nominee will very likely make that pledge, and since nominees control the conventions that nominate them, the delegates are likely to be seated.

After all, convention delegates don't choose party nominees; voters do, in the primaries and caucuses. The last time convention delegates chose a nominee, it was Hubert Humphrey, perhaps because the candidate who had won most of primaries -- Robert F. Kennedy -- was dead. It was after, and because of, that outcome that the Democrats began their interminable series of commissions to alter the way nominees are chosen, transforming conventions into feel-good convocations that ratify decisions already made.

As federal-state stand-offs go, this one lacks the gravitas of the confrontations over segregation four and five decades ago. But it is not without its consequences. An earlier New Hampshire primary could be a boon to Republican Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Being a neighbor has been a clear advantage in the past, and there is no reason to suspect that it does not remain so.

Two Democratic contenders, John Edwards and (should he run) New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, hope to come into New Hampshire after strong showings in Nevada. Richardson is a westerner and Hispanic. Edwards, with his emphasis on economic equity, can appeal to heavily unionized Las Vegas. If the New Hampshire vote precedes Nevada's, both candidates might need new battle plans.

And an earlier New Hampshire primary could complicate the strategies of the two quasi-official frontrunners, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Republican Senator John McCain if Arizona. Front-runners often do poorly in New Hampshire, whose voters seem to take some delight in not doing what the experts and the pollsters told them they were going to do. Perhaps they are ornery. Or maybe they just have their own, perverse, sense of timing.

Jon Margolis, the former national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964.

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