As recently as 1976, Democratic presidential candidates were still duking it out in June primaries. As recently as 1992, Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown dueled well into April. Yet in 2008, with the Democratic and Republican races wide open for the first time in decades, it looks as if the nominees of both parties could be known by the first week in February, thanks to a dramatically speeded-up primary season.

That’s good news for the early front-runners, especially those with lots of money, but not for grassroots activists who would like to see the race last long enough to get candidates to explain how they’ll meet the challenges confronting the nation, to observe how the contenders handle the spotlight and to allow for the possibility of late starters (like global warming crusader Al Gore). The unusually early “Who’s Hollywood’s favorite?” sparring going on now between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is not the same as the real thing: Primaries force candidates to connect with voters, not just raise money at cocktail parties.

Unfortunately, the 2008 primaries could move so fast that the only real connections will be made via TV commercials. The front-loading of the selection process will leave little time for old-fashioned person-to-person campaigning. Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Utah have scheduled February 5 primaries, and the big-ticket states–California, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas–are exploring similar moves. Alabama’s aiming for February 2, while Florida’s toying with January 29. That’s got officials in the first caucus state, Iowa (January 14), and the first primary state, New Hampshire (January 22), who zealously guard their political concessions, muttering ominously about shifting dates back toward New Year’s.

Why the rush? The process has been speeding up for years, but until this election, party national committees had imposed a measure of order by threatening to reduce the size of convention delegations from states that tried to elbow into the zone traditionally occupied by Iowa and New Hampshire. What’s changed is that state legislators have finally figured out that party conventions are just so much theater. So why worry about losing a few delegates? Indeed, when DNC chair Howard Dean threatened to cut the size of the Florida delegation to the 2008 convention, State Representative Dan Gelber of Miami Beach responded, “I don’t have any constituents in the DNC. I only have constituents in my district. They would like to be more relevant.”

No one can fault voters for that desire. And steps that give racially and ethnically diverse states more influence seem, on the surface, positive. But giving big states a place at the table in January or February changes the dynamic of the competition. Big states demand big campaigns, which play out not in town halls but in thirty-second commercials. To compete seriously in Iowa and New Hampshire and then immediately move to the biggest states will require not millions of dollars but tens of millions–amounts more likely to come from major donors to probable winners than from public financing. That’s already led several candidates to reject public financing and its spending limits. In short, front-loading benefits front-runners like Hillary Clinton and John McCain who begin with high name recognition and big bankrolls.

A better process would set up a rotating calendar of regional primaries spread over several months. That would allow candidates who take gutsy stands and engage in aggressive base-building to develop momentum. Comprehensive campaign- finance reform and experiments with new voting systems, such as instant-runoff voting, would also help. But those changes won’t come in time for 2008. What this means is that in order for progressives to be part of the process, activism must speed up as well. It may still be possible for the 2008 nominating process to be about more than big names and big money. But that will happen only if we recognize that the train is leaving the station way ahead of schedule–and that if those who seek a better politics are not on board, it will deliver a nominee without us.