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Opinion: Problems with the primaries

WASHINGTON -- The true insanity of the altered presidential primary schedule does not become apparent until you actually lay out the proposed dates on a 2008 calendar.

WASHINGTON -- The true insanity of the altered presidential primary schedule does not become apparent until you actually lay out the proposed dates on a 2008 calendar.

The mad rush of states to advance their nominating contests in hopes of gaining more influence has now produced something that is so contrary to the national interest that it cries out for action.

The process is not over. Just this month, Florida jumped the line by moving its primary up to Jan. 29, a week ahead of the Feb. 5 date when -- unbelievably -- 24 states may hold delegate selection contests, either primaries or caucuses.

Florida's move crowds the traditional leadoff primary in New Hampshire, which had been set for Jan. 22. And New Hampshire is unhappy about the competition from two caucuses planned even earlier in January in Iowa and Nevada. So its secretary of state, Bill Gardner, who has unilateral authority to set the New Hampshire voting date, is threatening to jump the rivals, even if it means voting before New Year's Day.

This way lies madness.

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Instead of there being a steady progression of contests, challenging and whittling the field of contenders in the wide-open races to select a successor to George W. Bush, it is going to be a herky-jerky, feast-and-famine exercise that looks more like Russian roulette than anything that tests who can best fill the most powerful secular office on Earth.

As things stand, the earliest contests in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida will be followed by that indigestible glut of races on Feb. 5.

On that day, voters in the mega-states of California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas will all be called upon to judge the fields of contenders. And so will voters of 17 smaller states, ranging from Alabama to Oregon and from Delaware to Utah.

Most of those voters will never have had an opportunity to get even a glance at the candidates. All they will know is what the ads tell them -- and what the media can supply, when reporters are exhausting themselves dashing after the race from state to state.

Assuming everyone is not burned out, the survivors of this ordeal will find things slowing to a crawl -- and then screeching to a halt.

Maryland and Virginia hold primaries on Feb. 12, and Wisconsin a week later. Then there's a two-week gap, with only the Hawaii and Idaho caucuses, until Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Vermont vote on March 4.

At that point, presidential politics effectively stops for more than two months. Between March 4 and the May 6 contests in Indiana and North Carolina, the only scheduled events are a primary in Mississippi and the Maine Republican caucuses.

This crazy calendar sets up one of two scenarios -- both scary. If one candidate in each party wraps up the nomination by gaining momentum in the January contests and amassing delegates on Feb. 5, we will be looking at the longest, most-dragged-out general election ever. The conventions are late in 2008, the Democrats', the last week in August; the Republicans', the first week in September. The time from February to Labor Day will be boring beyond belief.

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But if nothing is decided by the night of Feb. 5, the chance of a quirky result from the oddity of the political geography of the remaining states will be greatly increased. Democrats will have to compete in Indiana and North Carolina, where they rarely win in November. Republicans will be judged in Massachusetts and Vermont, where their party membership is minuscule.

None of this helps the country get the best-qualified candidates, and none of it helps either party put forward its best candidate.

The situation screams for repair. In my view, the parties would be well advised to make the necessary fixes themselves, rather than wait for Congress to devise remedial legislation.

The mandate for the next pair of national party chairmen should be to agree on a sensible national agenda for the primaries -- either a rotating regional system that gives all states a turn at being early, or a plan that allows a random mix of states to vote, but only on dates fixed in advance by the parties, and separated at intervals that allow voters to consider seriously their choices.

It would be close to criminal to allow a repeat of this coming year's folly in 2012.

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