Dominoes ready to fall in primary process

Kathy Sullivan says: “I hate to say I told you so.”

The former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party had warned the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that changing the committee’s rules regarding the primary schedule would lead to chaos.

And this past week, Florida began the process of proving her right.

The GOP-led Republican legislature easily passed a bill last week moving the state’s primary to Jan. 29, and Gov. Charlie Crist (R ) is expected to sign it.

That puts Florida in violation of the bylaws of both the DNC and Republican National Committee (RNC). It also creates the potential for the earliest primaries and caucuses ever, as state and party officials in early states warn they’ll do whatever it takes to protect their coveted status.

“The DNC and the RNC never took seriously the concerns of many of us about frontloading,” Sullivan said. “The DNC was always more concerned about the minnows than the big sharks in the background.”

As many as 20 states are considering moving their primaries to Feb. 5, and many have already done so.

Jan. 29 is the same day as South Carolina’s Democratic primary, while the GOP is scheduled for Feb. 2. But speculation is growing that South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson is considering moving the primary up by one to two weeks.

Dawson did not give a date, but told The Hill that South Carolina will do whatever it takes to keep the state the first-in-the-South primary. In the Palmetto State, the parties host their own primaries.

Enter New Hampshire.

New Hampshire state law holds that its primary must be held at least one week before any “similar events.”

It is currently scheduled by the DNC for Jan. 22, but Secretary of State Bill Gardner takes state laws, especially this one, very seriously.

“There’s not a point in time where I would say we’re going to stop or not protect the primary or not protect the law,” Gardner told The Hill. “I’d prefer not to have it at the end of this year, but if it has to be, it has to be.”

Therein lies the possibility that New Hampshire could move to middle or early January — the same time as the Iowa caucuses.

Iowa is currently scheduled for Jan. 14, and Secretary of State Michael Mauro said Iowa has an understanding with New Hampshire that the Granite State won’t try to jump ahead of them.

“We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize our relationship,” Mauro said.

Mauro added he isn’t ruling out the possibility of an agreement with Gardner in which both states move their elections up one week, maintaining the same distance and satisfying both state laws.

“I’d like to have that possibility of getting together,” he said.

Thus the possibility of a late-December or very-early-January Iowa caucus is born.

For now, operatives on all sides are urging calm and patience. Florida still has a number of options it can explore to avoid violating the rules and throwing the whole calendar into a tailspin.

But Sullivan said she feels like “the little boy with his finger in the dike, warning” the townspeople.

“Now the dam has burst,” she said. “Luckily, I got out of the way.”

Sullivan points to DNC Chairman Howard Dean and RNC Chairman Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) as being somewhat naïve in thinking they would have real power over states looking to frontload the calendar.

“It just goes to show how little influence the chairmen of the two parties have,” she said.

For their part, presidential candidates have largely been quiet on the issue, wary of offending any particular state, its voters and its donors.

Officials with the campaigns of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) were noncommittal when asked for comment last week.

“Barack Obama has received an enthusiastic response to his message of change in Florida and we look forward to continuing our dialogue with Floridians in the months to come,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki.  “The DNC and the Florida state party will arbitrate this and we will compete on the final field vigorously.”