Democrats will protect Iowa's and New Hampshire's leadoff positions in the presidential selection process while speeding up the primary calendar for 2004, allowing other states to move contests to early February.

The rules panel of the Democratic National Committee gave final approval to the measure two months after initially approving the plan that will put them on the same schedule as Republicans.

The changes were approved after Michigan's chairman, Mark Brewer, asked the panel to "end the unfair monopoly Iowa and New Hampshire have" on the presidential selection process. "We need to have a system where every state has a chance to go first." The Michigan complaint had no support on the rules panel.

The full DNC is expected to approve the plan easily on Saturday, after hearing a complaint from Michigan Sen. Carl Levin about the head start given to Iowa and New Hampshire.

"I think Iowa and New Hampshire play a very important role in the process," said Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe. "I don't like that they're not diverse, but we can accomplish that by having South Carolina and Michigan among the states that move up to match Republican primaries."

South Carolina Democrats have already cleared the way to move up to Feb. 3, 2004, the first day that other states can move behind Iowa and New Hampshire. Other states, including Michigan, are still considering their options.

The new calendar could lead to a nominee by mid-March or earlier, depending on which states move up. That would be several weeks earlier than competitive years such as 1992, but no earlier than 2000, when the matter was settled by mid -March.

Under the Democrats' proposal, Iowa's precinct caucuses could be held Jan. 19, or no earlier than 15 days before the first Tuesday in February. New Hampshire's primary could be held Jan. 27, or no earlier than seven days before the Feb. 3 kickoff.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, state Democratic parties had to wait for a month after New Hampshire's primary while Republicans held highly publicized presidential contests in states such as South Carolina, Michigan and Arizona.

Democrats in several states complained that the attention paid to the GOP campaign during that month hurt state Democratic parties.

"We have to allow our state parties to be competitive," said Carol Khare, co-chair of the rules panel.

On Saturday, McAuliffe will name the Democrats' site selection committee for the 2004 convention, which expects to have a city chosen by the end of summer or early fall.

Democrats will be inviting up to a dozen cities within the next month to compete for the convention. They have already heard from several, including Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Houston and New York City.

While they dealt with several of the more technical details of the 2004 race, potential presidential candidates and presidential speculation were at a minimum.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina dropped by for some receptions, an aide for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was traveling outside the country, roamed around talking to committee members and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut dropped by to talk. House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt speaks to the group on Saturday.

Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee, was traveling and did not attend. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was on an overseas Senate trip and sent a message by videotape.

Democrats suggested that potential candidates were not encouraged to show up en masse and make the presidential race the focus of the winter meeting instead of the 2002 midterm elections.

Kerry and Edwards are the busiest of the potential candidates these days, Democrats say, while Gephardt and Lieberman have the luxury of showing up in their status as senior party statesmen -- Gephardt as the House Democratic leader and Lieberman as the former vice presidential candidate.

"I'm just seeing old friends," Lieberman said Friday, smiling as he moved quietly through a crowd of Democrats. "I'm just thanking them for their help."