Primary and caucus system runs amok

Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton arrived in New Hampshire ready to go on the attack against those perceived to have bested them in the Iowa caucuses. Even before they left the frozen flats of the Midwest for the frozen mountains of the Granite State, the gloves were off and they were fighting back — and were being accused by both the media and their opponents of overreaction or desperation.

In fact, neither had much choice given the stakes and the fact that they had only five days to deal with the “momentum” or “bump” the so-called winners got coming out of Iowa. They had to break through media coverage that would have died down before the New Hampshire primary if there were a few more days separating the primary there from Iowa, but by eliminating the cooling-off period between contests, the calendar dictates the strategy and tactics of candidates coming out of Iowa.

One who has to break through all this in just five days can’t rely on nuance. Romney and Hillary know this and in the days leading up to today’s votes have begun going after their opponents in far harsher terms than might have been the case under a different calendar. Whether their attacks on Obama and McCain will work, prove useless or backfire will be known late Tuesday as New Hampshire voters render their judgment on what’s going on, but the point is that much of what’s going on is dictated by a primary and caucus system running amok.

The system has been made worse every four years since the early ’70s when primaries began to proliferate and party leaders in other states began plotting to minimize the early influence of Iowa and New Hampshire or actually supplant them by either moving their contests to try to get ahead of them or by urging the creation of “super” and regional primaries that might prove more “representative” than these states. None of these machinations have come close to working.

One of the ironies of reform is that it seems that every time reformers set out to improve things they manage to either make the problems they want to solve worse or create new ones that no one ever had to deal with before they showed up.

Thus, the desire of many to limit the importance of the early states has, in fact, had the opposite effect as Republican Rudy Giuliani has, to his chagrin, learned in recent weeks. Remember, his strategy called for the former New York City mayor to essentially ignore the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina (to say nothing of those in Wyoming) and concentrate his forces in Florida and the early mega-primary to follow. The theory was that Florida, where he had a more than 20 point lead just a couple of months ago, would provide a “fire wall” that would stop Romney, McCain or whoever else might win those unimportant early contests.

It sounded good on paper, but Giuliani’s national numbers have crumbled in recent weeks and he’s now in third place in Florida. He’ll be lucky to limp into the primaries he was counting on to propel him to the nomination and Oval Office. He now has to hope not only that Romney, McCain and Huckabee will come out of the early states deadlocked, but that he can deal himself back into the game at that point. My bet is that he won’t be able to and will be consigned to the ranks of might-have-beens in short order.

Arizona’s John McCain got a new lease on life in Iowa not by winning, but by managing a distant third behind Huckabee and Romney. That finish and his media constituency has catapulted him to favorite status in New Hampshire, where Huckabee isn’t seen as much of a player and Romney is working mightily to avoid being beaten in his own back yard.

If McCain wins a resounding victory today, he’ll be not just the front-runner but the favorite, in spite of the hostility to his candidacy within the GOP base. If it’s close, however, it won’t be over by a long shot. Romney has money and can compete in Michigan while Huckabee can take South Carolina. If they do, there will be one big showdown in Florida with or without Rudy Giuliani who once owned the place, but will end up almost as much a spectator as the rest of us.

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