Racing Into 2004 | The Nation


Racing Into 2004

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Arnie Arnesen does not know exactly when the political wind shifted. It might have been on the day Trent Lott was forced to step down as Senate majority leader. It might have been when she heard a businessman she knew describe President Bush's economic stimulus plan as "crazy." It might have been when she noticed antiwar vigils were being held in the small towns of her home state of New Hampshire. But somewhere between the dark days of last November, when Democrats questioned whether they should even bother to challenge George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, and late January, when the President's national approval ratings dipped below 60 percent for the first time since September 10, 2001, the mood among Democrats in the first primary state began to take a turn. "Democrats started to get their sea legs," Arnesen says. "We started to realize that we weren't necessarily nominating a sacrificial lamb, that we might be nominating the next President. Then we thought, 'Shit, we're in the middle of a campaign that actually matters and most of us are still in shock. We're still searching and now, very quickly, we have to make one of the most important political choices of our lifetimes.'"

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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Arnesen, a former state legislator and Democratic nominee for governor who now hosts a popular radio talk show, is right when she says things are moving fast. The New Hampshire primary, once a mid-March event, is set to take place next January 27--the earliest date ever--following the Iowa caucuses eight days before. "We used to talk about the spring primaries, and that now is a joke," says Colorado College political science professor Robert Loevy. While Bobby Kennedy did not even announce his 1968 presidential campaign until mid-March of that year, Steve Cobble, a campaign-trail veteran who helped run the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1988 race, says, "The way things are headed, it's very possible the Democratic nomination will be settled by early February of 2004." Progressives can still have an impact on the nomination fight, Cobble argues, but only if they recognize that the window for acting is rapidly closing because of schedule changes that have dramatically quickened the pace of presidential politics.

The speedup is entirely intentional. While presidential primaries in a handful of states were high-profile events in the 1950s and '60s, it wasn't until 1972 that control over the nomination process shifted from back-room bosses to caucus and primary voters. Party power brokers always bristled at the change, which created a process that was long, costly, frequently divisive and prone to empowering outsider candidates like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan. After Republicans collapsed their nominating process into the fast run across Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan that guaranteed the nomination for George W. Bush by late February of 2000 (at a point when Al Gore and Bill Bradley were still sifting through the wreckage of their New Hampshire duel), Democratic leaders decided that they, too, would grease the selection process in hopes of gaining more time for their candidate to shake the money tree before the fall campaign.

Early in 2002, Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe and his allies at the DNC quietly engineered a reworking of the primary and caucus schedule that all but guaranteed the fastest-starting and fastest-finishing nominating process in American political history. Rule changes implemented by the DNC moved the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary dates deep into January 2004--maintaining what Michigan Senator Carl Levin condemned as the "perpetual privilege" of those two small, overwhelmingly white and disproportionately rural states--and then cleared the way for one more "retail" primary in South Carolina, on February 3. With big states and regional clusters of smaller states expected to grab every subsequent Tuesday in February for their primaries, the surviving candidates will then find themselves locked in a high-stakes, big-money-fueled, television-and-tarmac-driven sprint. Within weeks after Iowans straggle out of their midwinter caucuses, voters will choose thousands of delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Barring an atypical campaign in which relatively evenly matched contenders wrestle to a draw that prevents a clear frontrunner from emerging--a circumstance that last occurred in 1976, when challenger Ronald Reagan dogged President Gerald Ford into the Republican National Convention--the safe bet is that the Democratic race will be over long before most Democrats have begun to focus on it. "Front-loading favors well-known, well-financed candidates," admits former DNC chair Don Fowler, one of the chief architects of schedule changes that added his home state of South Carolina to the axis of electorally influential states.

In the chosen few states, the campaign is already well under way. "I don't think the campaigning has ever been this intense this early. It's crazy out here," Joe Bolkcom, a state senator from Iowa City who is one of his state's most outspoken progressive legislators, said in late January. Bolkcom does not have a lot of money or a lot of Washington connections. But because Iowa will play such a critical role in setting the stage for the 2004 nomination contest, he's one of the hottest commodities in US politics. "Last Saturday some of us went for coffee with Dick Gephardt," Bolkcom reported. "John Kerry had an event at the same time, so I had to miss that. Then on Saturday night we went to see Gephardt, Kerry and Howard Dean in Marion. And on Sunday afternoon, we went to a house party with Howard Dean." Bolkcom is uncommitted at this point, as are most Iowa Democrats, and their choices are being complicated by the fact that new Democrats seem to enter the contest every week. "Gary Hart is making a run around the state this week; and I think a lot of people are still waiting to hear from [Ohio Congressman] Dennis Kucinich. The war is really unpopular here," he added, echoing broad interest in the prospect that the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus might enter the contest as a peace candidate. "I don't know how long people are going to wait to decide. Everyone recognizes that we have a chance here to influence the whole campaign--in Iowa and nationally. That puts some pressure on us. Because this is all starting to move so fast, people are starting to sign up. It's a strange thing: The race just seems to be starting and already everyone is talking about how the time frame is getting pretty narrow."

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