RNC poised to begin altering its primary calendar for 2012

Republicans have a historic opportunity to change the way their presidential nominating process progresses, an opportunity that members of a key committee are promising not to pass up.

Following the 2008 presidential election cycle, in which three candidates duked it out in a nationwide battlefield on Super Tuesday, the primary committee has been packed with heavyweights determined to spread out the 2012 nominating process.

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But for a committee filled with those who have haggled over the calendar for years, an unexpected new ally has emerged: James Roosevelt Jr., the co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Roosevelt has been close to a number of members of the GOP panel, discussing ways to avoid a national primary. And while Democrats have always been able to change party rules between conventions, Republicans passed a rule at their 2008 convention that affords them the same window, although it expires next summer.

“Now, for the first time ever, we both have the authority to make changes and can actually talk to each other and maybe hope to work things out,” said David Norcross, New Jersey’s national committeeman and the Northeast’s representative to the GOP panel.

“We’ve established some good, open dialogue previously with Jim Roosevelt,” added Bob Bennett, the former Ohio GOP chairman who has made reforming the calendar his signature legacy. “It’s really necessary in this case to work with the Democrats to come up with a workable plan that will be accessible to the individual states.”

“We’re able to talk. We don’t always agree on things,” Roosevelt, a member of the DNC’s Change Commission, which is also dedicated to reforming the primary calendar, told The Hill. “We’ve had ongoing conversations based on where the DNC and the Democratic Convention’s views stand.

“If we don’t try to coordinate, [the primary process] just keeps leapfrogging into the previous year,” Roosevelt added.

The GOP’s committee will meet for the first time next Monday in Washington, though the real heavy lifting is expected to begin this summer at the Republican National Committee (RNC) meeting in San Diego. Their mandate: to spread out the primary process and avoid a national primary, all while earning enough support from committee members who want their states to go first.

“Our role is to review the timing, the process, the rules of the 2012 presidential calendar and either propose some changes or leave it as is,” said former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, a member of the committee. “I think we do need to ultimately change the system. I think there’s been a tremendous amount of momentum to come up with some kind of reform.”

Major thorns in the side of any reform prospect — concerns of early-contest states Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — have already been accounted for; the four states that led off the 2008 primary process will do so again in 2012. But now, coalitions that have favored or opposed various plans will once again be mobilized to ensure their states’ voices are heard.

The committee itself has never been of one mind on fixing the calendar. In 2008, Bennett offered what became known as the Ohio plan, which would have divided states into groups and rotated them between months in future presidential elections. Anuzis and others strongly opposed that idea, which ultimately died before reaching the national convention.

“The problems will be, how do you determine who goes when? There’s always states around that want a shot at going first,” said Norcross. “Everybody wants their shot at first.”

But one advantage the panel has is that a national primary is something everyone hopes to avoid.

“If you go back and you talk to any of the presidential candidates [from 2008], they will tell you they do not want to go through what they went through last year,” Bennett said. If nothing changes, he added: “We’ll have a de facto national primary in ’12, and I think that nobody is in favor of that.”

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The most likely scenario, according to committee members interviewed for this article, is some form of rotating primary, in which a group of states are allowed to hold their contests within a certain window, then shifted to another window four years later to give other regions a chance to hold early or late contests.

But how those groups are organized — whether by region, by size or by ethnic diversity — remains subject to debate. And for a party that has traditionally left decisions on when to hold contests up to the states, a national mandate could rub some state parties the wrong way.

“It’s a very thorny question for Republicans, because typically we have not wanted to impose on the state parties national party decisions,” said former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, another committee member. “The idea that it’s going to be mandated by national rules is a lot for people to get their arms around.”

Rath and former Iowa state party Chairman Brian Kennedy will defend their states’ early position. Bennett, committee members say, will be a major force given his history of working on calendar issues. Anuzis, Norcross and committee Chairman John Ryder, of Tennessee, are also likely to bring serious ideas to the table.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele in late May appointed national committee members Steve King, of Wisconsin, and Paul Senft, of Florida, to the panel, along with former Office of Personnel Management Director Kay James, former White House Spanish media spokeswoman Mercy Schlapp and Mary Kane, the one-time Maryland secretary of state.

“Chairman Steele hopes to see an orderly process in which everyone is aware of the primary schedule ahead of primary season,” said RNC spokeswoman Gail Gitcho.

With meetings already scheduled and a tight deadline to agree on a framework that could have significant implications on the 2012 primary, White House contenders will keep a careful eye on the committee’s actions, and may prove obstacles to reaching an agreement.

“At this stage of the game, pretty much every [presidential contender] is comfortable with, and understands, the status quo, so I don’t think anybody is pushing for any drastic changes because they don’t know the unintended consequences,” Anuzis said.

Still, with both parties searching for a compromise, committee members are pledging to reach across the aisle to get a calendar agreement hammered out. The Republican rule change, allowing the first post-convention work on party rules since before the 1972 convention, has opened a window that may not come again.

“If we don’t do it now, we’re not going to get another chance,” Bennett warned.