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Democrats Set Jan. 3 Date for Iowa Caucuses

Iowa Democrats have voted to move their presidential primary caucuses to Jan. 3, the same date Republicans picked earlier this month, keeping the state's traditional position as the first primary contest in the race.

The state's precinct caucuses had been scheduled for Jan. 14, but the parties decided to move them up under pressure from other states rushing to the beginning of the primary calendar to try to increase their influence on 2008 election.

The move, confirmed Sunday by party spokesman Chris Allen, means the major remaining question about the calendar is the New Hampshire primary, originally scheduled for Jan. 22. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner has said only that he would schedule that primary no later than Jan. 8.

For decades, Iowa's precinct caucuses have marked the first major test of strength in the presidential nominating season.

In the caucuses, members of each major party meet publicly in schools, private homes and other sites, declare support for their favorite candidate, and the statewide tally is used to determine the allocation of delegates pledged to different contenders.

The caucuses traditionally play a key role in the presidential campaign by winnowing the field of candidates and providing momentum for the top finishers heading into the early primaries in New Hampshire and other states.

That early position in the nominating calendar brings Iowa and New Hampshire enormous attention from presidential candidates, and gives them a heavy role in the selection of the nominees.

In this cycle, however, other states have sought to get a piece of the action — even to the point of running afoul of their party establishments. They want the attention and increased influence that early balloting brings and feel they can do this by moving up in the campaign calendar.

Florida set its primary for Jan. 29, and Michigan is planning a Jan. 15 primary. Those decisions forced South Carolina to move up its date as well.

In Iowa, both Gov. Chet Culver and Sen. Tom Harkin, the state's top two Democrats, had pushed for the Jan. 3 date, and Iowa Democratic chairman Scott Brennan last week made that recommendation to the party's state Central Committee, which approved it Sunday night.

"As a practical matter, I think it will maintain Iowa's first-in-the nation status," Brennan said after the vote.

Sunday's decision was eagerly awaited by the various presidential campaigns which have been building huge organizational operations in the state as well as spending heavily on advertising.

Mark Daley, a spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Iowa campaign, said campaign strategists build a detailed timetable counting backward from the day the caucuses will be held.

"It's good to know what the date is, because we build backwards from the caucus date," Daley said. "We've done some hypotheticals, but it's nice to have some finality."

Daley said most campaigns were less worried about the precise date, than having one selected so planning could begin.

Dan Leistikow, who runs John Edwards' campaign in the state, agreed.

"I think that's true for all the candidates," he said. "It's good to have some finality in the process."