Feb. 5 national primary

Pressure from the leading presidential candidates has set the stage for a Feb. 5 national primary that will likely include 20 states, possibly more.

Working behind the scenes and mostly through surrogates, Democratic Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), and Republicans Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have fueled a rush of states to hold primary elections on Feb. 5 next year, or earlier. As many as 23 states are in the frame to hold primary elections on that date.

Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico and Oklahoma in 2004 held their nominating contests on the first Tuesday of February, and are likely  be joined this time by such big states as California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Texas. They may be joined also by smaller states including Tennessee, Arkansas, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, North Dakota, Utah, Kansas, Colorado and (for the GOP only) West Virginia and Nevada. The legislatures of Pennsylvania and North Carolina are holding hearings on the issue but the outcomes of these are uncertain.

Allies of candidates who expect to do well in these states are taking lead roles in moving primaries there to early February. By holding primaries soon after the Iowa caucuses, the first contest of the year, such states will have a bigger impact than before on who becomes the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.

Clinton’s allies in New York and New Jersey will be instrumental should those states move their primary dates to Feb. 5.

In recent weeks, buzz over a Feb. 5 primary date has picked up noticeably in New York. Those who could make it happen are Democratic state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, who supports Clinton, and state senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, who says he is neutral at this point.

In New Jersey, legislators are moving ahead with a bill to create a Feb. 5 primary with the approval of Gov. Jon Corzine (D), who has signaled to state Clinton supporters that he will soon endorse her.

Clinton’s advantage in New York, where she recently won re-election with 67 percent of the vote, is obvious. But she is also expected to have a significant advantage over her rivals in New Jersey, where much of the population is part of New York City’s media market.

In Illinois, Obama’s allies have been outspoken about helping their favorite by establishing an early primary date.

“Sen. Obama offers real hope for the American people and I am proud to give him my support,” said Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich on the day of Obama’s official presidential announcement, “I want to take this opportunity on this historic day to urge the legislature to immediately send me a bill to move our state’s primary from March 18, 2008 to February 5, 2008. That will give Illinois voters an opportunity to send an early message in support of Sen. Obama and send him to victory.”

Obama is expected to win the state because he represents it in Congress, even though Clinton was born in Chicago.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has also been active. He has worked personally to move Nevada and Utah, Western states where he is expected to have an advantage, up in the process.

“There was certainly cooperation between Gov. Richardson and Sen. [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] to move Nevada up, in the overall belief that Nevada is the makeweight of the 2008 presidential race,” said Mike Stratton, who formerly served on the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) scheduling and nominating commission.

Stratton, who advocated for a Western regional primary while on the commission, said Richardson also worked with Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) to advance the Utah primary to Feb. 5.

Richardson is expected to do well in both states because issues important to New Mexico, such as water rights and federal land management, are also important in Utah. Being Hispanic could also help him in Nevada because perhaps 20 percent of its population is Hispanic. Supporters of Romney, a Mormon, and McCain, a westerner, have also pushed for an early Utah primary, a state GOP official said.

Richardson has also pressed to move California’s primary to Feb. 5. During a speech in Washington yesterday, Richardson joked that he would like to see the California primary “with all those Latino voters” take place earlier, adding that he had spoken with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) about it during this week’s National Governors Association conference.

The candidates’ influence over the state primary calendars has drawn criticism.

“On the one hand, the Republican Party supports any effort to make it more relevant [in the presidential nomination process],” said Jason Heffley, deputy executive director of the Illinois Republican Party, in reference to efforts by Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan to move the primary up, “but it’s very unfortunate that the Democratic leadership in the state is doing it to help the political ambitions of one person.”

Republican White House hopefuls and their allies have also worked to move up primary dates in states where they have an advantage.

McCain won the Michigan presidential primary in 2000 and has a well-coordinated campaign there. His supporters pressed for an early February primary, which is in the process of being made official.

“McCain won here and it’s thought he has good chances,” said Michigan GOP party chairman Saul Anuzis, who has pledged to stay neutral.

“Last year the McCain folks were all in favor of” an early primary, said Anuzis. “They were the only ones organized. I think they were the ones last year who were most up front and center in pushing for an open primary system and having it early. His partisans were key players on the process committees and the ones pushing for the current proposal in front of the legislature.”

A strategist with a rival Republican campaign said Romney’s people were pushing for a Jan. 29, 2008 primary for Florida, where the former governor has invested much time and effort.

In Florida, one of the first and most influential advocates of an earlier primary was former state Republican chairman Al Cardenas, now a member of Romney’s Florida statewide steering committee.

Cardenas noted that when he began pushing for an earlier primary, he was not yet committed to Romney.

Republican leaders in the state House are pushing for an earlier primary, and Cardenas said that while they are neutral right now, there is a good chance they will side with Romney. Three former Florida House speakers are on Romney’s steering committee: Allan Bense, John Thrasher, and Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.).

Cardenas said Romney’s advantage in Florida is revealed by the fact that “more than half of the Republican major donors and fundraisers” have committed to Romney. But one GOP strategist countered that an early Florida primary may not be in Romney’s interest because Giuliani is far better known in the state.

Giuliani’s allies have been active in trying to move up the GOP primaries in California and New Jersey, according to a source close to his campaign. The source said former California gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon has worked behind the scenes to build support for a Feb. 5 primary. Simon did not respond to a request for an interview.

The source said Giuliani’s allies are also part of the effort to advance the New Jersey primary. A strategist with a rival campaign made the same assertion.

Giuliani is expected to do well in California because his relatively liberal record on social issues is likely to be more palatable to GOP voters there. And many voters in New Jersey in the New York media market followed his exploits while he was mayor of the Big Apple, including his heroics on Sept. 11, 2001.

Sam Youngman contributed to this report.