WASHINGTON – If polls and political soothsayers are correct, it may not matter how hard some Democratic candidates campaign in the so-called second-tier states — New Hampshire and Iowa are still considered kingmakers in presidential primary elections.
In October, Democratic candidates Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search) announced they would be skipping the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, the first official test in the presidential season.
Conceding their poor showing in the Iowa polls, where former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) are battling for first place, they decided to concentrate on the Jan. 27 primary in New Hampshire — where Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry are polling at the top — and then on the seven states holding primaries the following Tuesday, Feb. 3.
"Our decision is really grounded in looking for a place where Joe Lieberman can do well and start to surge ahead," said Lieberman spokesman Adam Kovacovich.
Meanwhile, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) is focusing on winning South Carolina, which is holding one of the Feb. 3 primaries.
Democratic strategist Tom King (search) said the decision to pull up stakes in Iowa and focus elsewhere was borne of the fact that these candidates were wasting money and effort on races they are clearly not going to win. King suggested that skipping Iowa reflects an overall weakness in the candidates' campaigns.
"It's a strategy, but probably out of necessity," said King. "Would they rather be competing in New Hampshire and Iowa? Yes, they would, but they don't have the wherewithal."
But Democratic pollster Celinda Lake points out that since the primary dates are so close to one another, it might still be possible for these candidates to break through, as long as they do reasonably well in either Iowa or New Hampshire.
"Because the dates are so bunched up, it might do them well to campaign there in the second-tier states," she said.
By March 1, voters in 16 states with nearly 115 combined electoral votes will have already picked their favorites for the Democratic nomination. North Dakota, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Delaware and Missouri are all holding their elections on Feb. 3.
Several states moved their primaries up on the calendar this year because they wanted some of the media and candidate attention consistently drawn by Iowa and New Hampshire. The Democratic National Committee (search), led by chairman Terry McAuliffe, encouraged the move so that the party could pick a standard bearer sooner and focus its resources and message against President Bush.
"The sooner the nominee is chosen and his or her voice is one voice singing one song — as opposed to nine songs — the better," said King.
But Dick Morris (search), a political strategist and former chief campaign adviser for President Clinton, called McAuliffe's plan a "big mistake."
"There is no time to vet a nominee and let him perform in public with massive numbers of people looking at him to see if he is at all flawed," Morris said.
He added that if Dean were to sweep both New Hampshire and Iowa, he could very well ride the popular momentum into victories on Feb. 3. In other words, he could become the nominee without having been tested in the majority of states, and before Democratic voters are convinced he could beat Bush in a general election.
As for Lieberman and others seeking to concentrate efforts on later primary races, "I think it is a huge mistake from which they will not recover," Morris said.
"If Dean wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he will have just enough momentum going into the next week that will be impossible for Lieberman and Clark to stop," he said.
But fierce campaigning could propel Gephardt to first place in Iowa, and Kerry to the top in New Hampshire, making everyone's chances a little better, experts said. And Edwards or Clark could pull an upset in South Carolina, having polled at the top among likely Democratic voters in recent surveys.
As for the proper vetting, New Democrat Network (search) President Simon Rosenberg, who worked on Clinton's 1992 campaign, argued that the states voting in early February represent a broad enough cross-section of the country to gauge how the nominee will do on a national scale.
"I think what's different about this year is that candidates have had to deal with a national set of issues much earlier than they normally have had to," he said. "We've never had this many states before [in the second tier] and that's added to the conversation."
However, Rosenberg conceded, "Their ability to run in all of these states simultaneously will be very much limited," making New Hampshire and Iowa more important than ever.
Since 1976, when outsider Jimmy Carter won Iowa and cemented the state's dominance in the election process, no president has been elected without winning in either New Hampshire, Iowa or both. Today, both states' constitutions require them to hold their nominating elections first, and the DNC has largely protected that right.
The District of Columbia has planned a non-binding primary on Jan. 13 — they officially pick their winners Feb. 10 — largely to draw attention to their fight for voting rights in Congress. But organizer Sean Tenner said it had had the secondary effect of drawing presidential candidates to Washington, D.C., which proves that the earliest races get the most attention.
"John Kerry's people were out here handing out brochures on U Street — an historically black neighborhood. This would have never in a million years happened before," he said.
Tenner agreed that the winner of the earliest contests has the best shot of becoming the nominee.
"The more you front load the primary dates, the candidate with the early momentum is more likely to win," he said.