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Michigan, Arizona Set to Move Up Primary Dates

August 22, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Now, to the ever-changing 2008 presidential nominating calendar.

February 5th is shaping up to be a key, perhaps decisive, day. Arizona today joined 19 other states in setting their primary election for that date. But it’s all getting started even earlier than that: Florida started the dominoes falling by moving its primary to January 29th. South Carolina Republicans leapfrogged ahead to January 19th. And today, the Michigan State Senate voted to shift its voting to January 15th.

And it won’t end there. Here to discuss the rush for electoral impact and influence are editorial columnists and editors from four key states: Carol Hunter of the Register in Des Moines, Iowa; Michael McCord of the Herald in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Robert Robb of the Arizona Republic; and Richard Burr of the Detroit News.

Welcome to you all. Robert Robb, why the rush?

ROBERT ROBB, The Arizona Republic: Well, Arizona statute sets the date for our primary for February 26th, but it gives the governor discretion to move it in advance, if she wants to, and she wanted to. The fear was that, by February 26th, the election would be over. If we waited for February 26th, we might very well be kingmakers, but the decision was to be at least relevant by joining the parade on February 5th rather than risking being irrelevant.

GWEN IFILL: Richard Burr, it’s a matter of relevancy, as well, in Michigan?

RICHARD BURR, The Detroit News: I think it’s a matter of relevancy. It’s also a matter of the fact that New Hampshire and Iowa don’t have a monopoly on being the best states to go first.

And I think the people in Michigan feel that we’re a larger industrial state with manufacturing and urban issues that aren’t often considered early on in the nominating presidential primary process and that those issues should be addressed earlier and not forgotten in a wave of small, early states.

GWEN IFILL: Carol Hunter, you have an opportunity to defend the primacy of Iowa here. Are you too small, too homogeneous a state to be leading this process?

CAROL HUNTER, The Des Moines Register: I don’t think so. For one thing, Iowa is changing. Like many states, it has a growing Hispanic population. It’s not as homogeneous as it once was.

But I think the most important thing is, is a defense of retail politics wherever you start it. Here in Iowa, candidates get out and really meet the people. They’re in cafes; they’re in libraries; they’re at the fairgrounds in each county. Many of the candidates have appeared in all 99 counties in Iowa. It gives candidates that might be considered a long shot a chance to make a name for themselves.

Starting the election in Iowa, N.H.

Robert Robb
Arizona Republic
I think there's a growing reluctance among people in other states to constantly defer to Iowa and New Hampshire the decision to first winnow out the field.

GWEN IFILL: Michael McCord, is it like that in New Hampshire, or is this something that maybe New Hampshire should start thinking about handing over to someone else?

MICHAEL MCCORD, The Portsmouth Herald: Well, it's very much that way, just like what Carol said about Iowa, in terms of retail politics. The house parties, the presidential job interviews, the meet-and-greets, the small events, stuff that you just rarely see covered.

As far as, you know, turning it over to another state, you know, I'm not going to speak for all the defenders of the system, but I think that New Hampshire and Iowa proved over the years that they've been a very good place for the election to start, not to be the be-all, end-all, but for the process to start.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Robb, I've had the experience of going from New Hampshire primary to Arizona to cover a primary, and it was a lot warmer in Arizona, which was a good thing. What are the other advantages for Arizona being able to go farther ahead in the process?

ROBERT ROBB: Well, I don't think Arizona pretends to have any special insight. We simply want our views to be heard. And I think there's a growing reluctance among people in other states to constantly defer to Iowa and New Hampshire the decision to first winnow out the field.

Long-time Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, who also ran for president in 1976, advocated very strongly for a reform that would create a series of regional primaries, spaced far enough part that candidates could repair from round one to get onto round two, those who survived, and rotated in terms of order, so everyone could get the shot.

And I think Arizona and other states are just looking for a say in the process, not necessarily looking to replace Iowa and New Hampshire as offering the first judgment, but believe that no one should have that as a permanent right.

GWEN IFILL: Is it that Arizona has had in the past no say in the process? One of the big candidates this year is a senator from Arizona.

ROBERT ROBB: Right. And Mo Udall once joked that Arizona was the only state in which parents couldn't tell their kids that anyone can grow up to be president of the United States as a result.

Arizona has had limited influence in the primary system. We had an early primary in 2004, February 3rd, and we got a lot of attention from candidates on the Democratic side of the election. But by the time our election rolled around, the decision had pretty well been set that John Kerry was going to be the nominee, so we appreciated the decision, but the votes were less influential.

With the rush of states to February 5th, I think that there will be a larger -- presumably the contest will still be alive at that point, and all the states on February 5th, I think, believe that they will be at least somewhat relevant.

Advancing primaries

Richard Burr
Detroit News
It's true that it didn't make a huge difference last time around for Michigan, but I think people were a little bit more aware of what's going on.

GWEN IFILL: Richard Burr, in Michigan not too long ago, the primary was in March, and then it was moved up to February 14th, and now you're talking about January 15th. What difference would that make?

RICHARD BURR: Well, I think it makes a difference because the primary process gets very compressed these days. We saw last year, I mean, the last time around that John Kerry wrapped up the process and the nomination pretty early.

And I go back to the point that there are some pretty big issues that the candidates don't tend to address early on in small states, whether it's issues like whether we should raise mandatory fuel economy rules, like the Senate's been debating and which is a huge issue in Michigan and affects a lot of jobs in a big industrial state and a lot of other industrial states, and issues like, what do we do about our cities? That's much more relevant to a lot more people than what's going on with corn prices in Iowa. Well, that's -- OK, go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I just want to ask you about that, because you already moved a primary up once last time, and I wondered, as a result, did you get more of those issues on the table? And do you have any reason to believe that they'll get on the table more now if you move it up even more?

RICHARD BURR: We did get a little bit of interest. John Kerry actually, while he won the nomination, while coming through he did make kind of a slip when we asked him a question in an editorial debate by phone, he said that one of the vehicles he drove was a gas-guzzling suburban. And this was something that was picked up later in the campaign by radio show talk host Rush Limbaugh and others who were criticizing him.

It's true that it didn't make a huge difference last time around for Michigan, but I think people were a little bit more aware of what's going on. And it's clear that this time it's making a huge difference in Michigan, because I was talking to the state GOP just the other day, and they said that they already have a commitment next month from all the GOP presidential hopefuls, except for Tom Tancredo, to appear at their state leadership conference up in Mackinaw next month.

GWEN IFILL: So they're actually all showing up?

RICHARD BURR: They're all showing up. You might have been lucky to get one person four years ago or eight years ago to do an event like that, and you're going to get a crowd of thousands to listen to them, party grassroots activists and donors, and so it's having the desired affect, at least on the GOP side.

Record number of appearances

Carol Hunter
Des Moines Register
States have always set their own calendars, and there's also some First Amendment considerations, as far as freedom of association. So there are some real cautions as far as who should make decisions about the calendar.

GWEN IFILL: Michael McCord, in New Hampshire, what does it feel like to have all these people breathing down your neck?

MICHAEL MCCORD: Well, we're in a position of -- in an odd way, it has actually enhanced both Iowa and New Hampshire, this front-loading process, because they have become, if you talk to the campaigns and if you listen to the media buzz, they have actually become absolutely must-win. It's going to be very difficult for a candidate to come out of there.

So, in some ways, we are seeing a record number of appearances. So, to be honest, these are like headline news for a day, and then they pass, because we know that we're going to be first, at least this time.

And I would just like to add that, you know, New Hampshire is not a place where candidates are not talking about every issue that the gentleman from Michigan talked about. At our newspaper, we hosted a forum with Senator Hillary Clinton in which she talked about these very issues, especially about CAFE standards, and that they cover a wide range of topics. And one of the things, while we are not ethnically diverse, I can assure you we are ideologically diverse. And that's what makes it a pretty unique mix up here.

GWEN IFILL: Carol Hunter, one of the interesting domino effects of this whole thing is that apparently, because Iowa has a rule that it will always be the first caucus one week ahead of New Hampshire, that now with the latest move to January 8th, it's possible -- I don't know, there may be Christmastime primary happening in Iowa.

CAROL HUNTER: That's true. It could go as early as mid-December. Our governor has said he doesn't want that to happen. He wants everyone to be able to enjoy Christmas.

But there is a law on the books that says our caucuses must be eight days before any other caucuses or primaries. Now, there's also talk that we will do everything possible to remain first in the nation and that there might be a special session in order to change that law, so maybe there are less days in between the first caucuses and a primary or other caucuses.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats, at least, the party officials are meeting in Washington this weekend, Carol, to talk about sanctioning those states who are moving their primaries too early. Do you think that's a good idea?

CAROL HUNTER: I do. I really do think the decisions on this rest with the parties. That's one caution I'd make. There is talk of federal legislation to dictate a calendar, but if you look at the Constitution, the Constitution doesn't even mention political parties.

It's a real states rights issue. States have always set their own calendars, and there's also some First Amendment considerations, as far as freedom of association. So there are some real cautions as far as who should make decisions about the calendar.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Richard Burr that same question, because Michigan and Florida would be two states that would be scolded by the national party. Do you think that's a good idea?

RICHARD BURR: I don't think they should penalize them, but I think Michigan might be willing to pay the price to make its point, which is it's OK to let other states try to get up earlier in the process and that perhaps the national parties should have a very intense discussion about whether we need some kind of a super-primary process and whether we need to reach some kind of schedule that makes sense for both parties unless the candidates figure out their strategies and move from there.

A possible regional primary

Michael McCord
Portsmouth Herald
It could be that New Hampshire, which has traditionally been the first and kind of sees that tradition on its own before kind of making it into state law...we'll have to fade out of that position in the future.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Robb, you mentioned earlier the possibility of a regional primary. How realistic do you think that is?

ROBERT ROBB: Well, I don't know that it's very realistic, in part because so many members of the Senate and the House see themselves as potential presidential candidates. And if you try for reform and fail, the good people of Iowa and New Hampshire are likely to punish you severely.

However, there will be a large number of failed presidential candidates coming from the Senate and the House this time. And that is, after his failure, when Mo Udall became most aggressive in advocating a change in the system.

So I do believe that there's a sense that this system makes no sense. Even if you don't want to see a series of regional primaries, there's other reform ideas, but this isn't the way that we should make one of the most important political decisions that the nation ever makes. There's got to be a more rational, appropriate way to go about it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Michael McCord, I did hear you say a few minutes ago, that this time New Hampshire would still remain first. What are their chances of being able to hold onto that for next time?

MICHAEL MCCORD: Well, as you probably know, we have a state law that says that we will be first. It was passed in 1975, and it's had at least four revisions, you know, since then. So as far as I can see into the foreseeable future, we're going to be first, and so I'm not sure exactly what is going to happen.

It's obviously a mess, and it's going to continue to be so until, as the gentleman from Arizona said, we bring some rationality to it. It could be that New Hampshire, which has traditionally been the first and kind of sees that tradition on its own before kind of making it into state law, you know, we'll have to fade out of that position in the future.

But for now, it seems to be -- I've talked to candidates. In fact, I've talked to Senator McCain just last week, and he reaffirmed New Hampshire is the best place for it. Of course, he won here in 2000. He used his strengths for that. So it's state law here, which makes it pretty unique, and I think it annoys a lot of the other states, as well.

GWEN IFILL: All right, on that note we'll leave it. Michael McCord, Robert Robb, Richard Burr, and Carol Hunter, thank you all very much.

ROBERT ROBB: Thank you.