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Iowa may shuffle presidential caucus calendar

October 24, 1997

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Jealously guarding Iowa’s impact on presidential politics, Republicans and Democrats in this first-in-the-nation caucus state are considering whether to tinker with their 2000 election calendar.

Activists might hold the Democratic and Republican caucuses on separate nights. They also could move their contests to earlier in the year, lengthening the 2000 nominating season.

``I don’t think anyone is ruling out any possibilities,″ said Keith Fortman, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party.

It is all part of a quadrennial fight over the lineup of states eager to help pick the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees. The biggest spat right now is among Republicans, though Democrats concede they could be drawn into the fray.

In Iowa, which traditionally opens the presidential campaign season, political leaders will begin discussions next month in hopes of an early resolution.

``Let’s not have this discussion in October of 1999,″ said Iowa Democratic Chairman Michael Peterson.

The calendar of primary elections and caucuses isn’t just of interest to political insiders. The demographics and character of states that offer key early tests go a long way toward determining which candidates fare well and which stumble and fall by the wayside.

For more than 20 years, precinct caucuses in Iowa have offered the first major test of strength, followed quickly by the New Hampshire primary.

Though the two parties differ in the way they devise their campaign calendars, Iowa and New Hampshire politicians of both parties work together to protect their prized status.

Iowa’s caucuses usually are the first Monday in February, followed eight days later by the New Hampshire primary.

During the 1996 election, Republicans in Louisiana staged caucuses well before Iowa’s and got some attention from candidates and reporters. Worried about a repeat, Iowa Republicans have considered moving their caucuses to January.

Fortman said officials are loath to move the caucus date because it could lengthen the campaign season and confuse the process. But they will take that step if needed to stay first, he said.

``It is certainly the goal to not have to move into January,″ he said. ``It is certainly the goal to have the Democratic and Republican caucuses on the same night.″

On the Republican side, states set their primary and caucus dates under loose guidelines from the national party. Democrats have national party rules that set the calendar.

Competition is intense because states that hold early tests get heavy attention from reporters and candidates, and state political parties get a big organizational boost from money spent campaigning.

Peterson said Democrats would be willing to consider moving the date of their caucuses into January if that’s what’s needed to stay first. Democrats have scheduled meetings beginning next month to review the next election calendar.

Whatever Iowans do, it won’t affect New Hampshire, said Robert Ambrose, that state’s deputy secretary of state. New Hampshire law says the state’s presidential primary must be a week before any similar contest, meaning another primary.

``That’s why we don’t go ahead of them anyway,″ Ambrose said of Iowa.

For the moment, potential candidates appear to be settling the issue of which states matter.

Presidential hopefuls are already making campaign swings through Iowa, speaking with local activists about establishing organizations. And Republican former Vice President Dan Quayle showed up in an interview Thursday in The Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., criticizing his Democratic successor, Al Gore.

``It’s not enough to have your placement determined by a committee, you also have to have the cooperation of the candidates,″ Peterson said.

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