Posted: Dec. 16, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The national Democratic Party is considering a proposal that would undercut the franchise Iowa and New Hampshire have in selecting presidential nominees and perhaps modestly bump up Delaware's influence.

The proposal would reorganize the nomination calendar, which for 30 years has forced other states to wait while the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary eight days later winnowed the candidates in the early winter chill of a presidential election year.

The two states will not go quietly, if at all, from what has become a way of life for them, occupying the center of the political universe every four years.

They have maintained their pre-eminence through the sort of circuitous reasoning that often paralyzes politics. Iowa and New Hampshire have clout because they make presidents, and they make presidents because they have clout.

As William M. Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state who sets the primary date, told the Manchester Union Leader, "The intent is to preserve what we have had, and nothing less."

Still, the Democrats are looking at a plan that would give new weight to states with more diverse populations than Iowa, which is 93 percent white, and New Hampshire, which is 95 percent white, with the goal of improving their chances of electing a president after losing two elections in a row.

The party would insert another state caucus or two -- possibly in the Southwest although nothing has been specified -- between Iowa and New Hampshire, and then a cluster of perhaps five states would vote a week after New Hampshire's primary. Delaware could be one of them, according to Campaigns & Elections magazine.

Delaware's placement would be similar to its spot in the 2004 presidential season, when it was one of seven states that followed New Hampshire, but its impact would rise as the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire was diluted.

In the 2004 contest, Delaware had a role in essentially sealing the Democratic nomination for John F. Kerry. The Massachusetts senator won a come-from-behind victory in Iowa, carried his neighbor New Hampshire and then took five out of the seven states, including Delaware, in the next round.

The Democratic National Committee will consider adopting a new calendar when it meets in April in New Orleans.

The Delaware Democrats on the committee are monitoring the debate but not taking an active part. The members are state Chair John D. Daniello, Vice Chair Harriet Smith Windsor, National Committeeman Rhett D. Ruggerio and National Committeewoman Karen L.K. Valentine.

As a potential Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is another Delawarean with an interest in the debate, but there will not be a peep from him about it. As he said Sunday on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," there is no sense getting involved in anything that could alienate a state that makes presidents.

"Anybody considering seeking the nomination for the Democratic Party is not very well served by saying you should do anything between Iowa and New Hampshire," Biden said.

Even if there is sentiment in the party for change, there are serious obstacles beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. The Republicans have no similar plans, and the calendar is not just a creature of the political parties but the state legislatures. Republican lawmakers have no incentive to help the other party take the steps it believes will help it elect a president.

Richard A. Forsten, a lawyer for the Delaware Republicans, knows firsthand how difficult it is to change the presidential schedule. When his party's national leadership was thinking about it in 2000, after it had been shut out of the White House for two elections, he was the brains behind a proposal called "The Delaware Plan."

It was an inclusive plan that would have divided the states into four pods based on population, from the smallest to the largest, with the smallest states voting first and no candidate able to secure enough delegates for the nomination until all the pods had voted. In one variation, Iowa and New Hampshire would have been held outside the pods, voting first, to take into account their traditional role.

The proposal had momentum until it got to the final stage for approval at the Republican national convention in Philadelphia, where George W. Bush was about to be nominated, and he liked the calendar that got him there just fine. With a word from Bush's operation, the Delaware Plan died.

Forsten did not think the Democrats would fare much better than the Republicans. "There's always a chance to get something done, but it would be very difficult. If you want anything to have any chance of succeeding, you have to accommodate Iowa and New Hampshire," he said.

"If you want to reorganize the calendar, you've got an incredible amount of coordination problems, because the primaries are set by state law. Ultimately, I think the only way it gets fixed is if you have both the Republicans and Democrats working together."

For now, not even the Democrats are working together.