San Diego Union Tribune

LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Stopping the primary madness

September 24, 2007

There are powerful people in Congress who consider the current presidential nominating system laughable – what with states playing a perpetual game of primary-election-day leapfrog.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is among them, and she worries that the presidential primary calendar has become crowded and confusing as states move their primaries and caucuses ever earlier as they try to gain some influence in choosing the nominees.

So Feinstein and others are behind a bill that would portion the states into four regions, with each region taking turns hosting the first round of primaries and caucuses. The plan would start in 2012, with the first region chosen by lottery. Four years later, a different region would vote in the first round.

Despite the big names attached to this idea – Feinstein, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. Lamar Alexander – it has engendered far-from-positive reactions from the national political parties and from small states that fear they will lose their outsize clout in the presidential nominating process.

 

CHAOTIC MARATHON

The plan was the focus of a hearing last week before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, of which Feinstein is chairman.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who helped write the bill, called the current system “chaotic, messy and unrepresentative” – one that turns the election “into a tarmac campaign” with candidates flying from airport to airport with little chance for meaningful discussion with voters.


 

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Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who was once a presidential candidate, said changing the system “would increase the pool of good candidates willing to run for the White House.”

Lieberman, the Connecticut independent and Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, said the current process “is no way for the greatest country in the world to select its leader.”

“It's not just a marathon; it's about 10 marathons,” said Lieberman, who even wants Iowa and New Hampshire to rotate regionally like everyone else, rather than continue to hold the first nominating contests, as the bill would allow.

 

NOT SO FAST

William Mayer, associate professor at Loyola Law School, said it is questionable whether Washington has the constitutional authority to compel states to hold their elections on specific dates, or to force national political powers to use a particular process for nominating their candidates.

It's clear what the political parties think. In letters submitted to the Senate committee, the Republican and Democratic national committees insist they recognize the problems with the current nominating system, but that it's up to the parties to make changes, which they promise to do.

The debate also has powerful regional overtones, and that was clear from the very different testimonies offered by two secretaries of state. One was Michael Mauro of Iowa, home of the first-in-the-nation caucuses. The other was Trey Grayson of Kentucky, which has little clout thanks to its relatively late May 20 primary date.

As one might guess, Grayson is all for the regional plan, and Mauro can't stand the idea. Grayson said the bill would make his state “meaningful” in the presidential selection process and force candidates to discuss issues specific to Kentucky, such as how best to transition from a tobacco-based economy. Mauro said Iowa's caucuses put “lesser-known candidates on the same footing as highly known candidates.”

Mauro didn't mention the many millions of dollars Iowa reaps each presidential election season because of the national attention focused on the state. By some estimates, the state raked in as much as $90 million because of the 2000 caucuses and related campaigning.

 

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, worries there will be inter-regional conflicts each presidential election cycle, with the most populous of each region's states driving the primary-election results.

“I'm a Westerner,” Stevens told Feinstein. “We're dominated by California in everything we do. I see 19 states, and California will determine what the outcome would be.”

To which Feinstein replied, “Wouldn't that be nice?”

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.