WASHINGTON – Voters went to the polls in the District of Columbia on Tuesday, casting the first votes of the 2004 presidential primary season. The main goal of the primary, which is non-binding, was to attract attention to voting rights issues in the nation's capital.
Five of the biggest names -- Sens. Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and John Edwards, Rep. Dick Gephardt and retired General Wesley Clark -- opted out, partly in deference to Iowa and New Hampshire's traditional roles as the first major contests. That left Howard Dean, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun and Rep. Dennis Kucinich and nine lesser known candidates on the ballot -- with no write-ins allowed.
Within two hours of the polls opening, Mayor Anthony A. Williams was voting.
"People feel very strongly about representation in the city, and they're going to get out there," said Williams, expressing optimism about voter turnout. Williams expected supporters of the five candidates missing from the ballot would likely show up at the polls to support the voting rights goal.
Now dubbed a "beauty contest" because no convention delegates will be assigned until February, when local Democratic Party members hold presidential caucuses, many observers said the attempt by Washington, D.C. to hold the first primary in the nation fell flat.
But progress towards D.C. statehood and full voting rights -- part of the reason city Democrats first considered moving up the primary ahead of Iowa -- has still been made despite the hiccups, said Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote (search), an organization that strives to secure full voting representation in Congress for D.C. residents. Zherka told Foxnews.com that more articles have been written about these issues in the past year than in the last 10 years.
The early primary has "allowed us to educate a certain class of people in America, people who are interested in politics," Zherka said.
"The people who are very interested in politics and political horseracing are hearing once again about the problems of the district, but we have to move beyond just those people. The hope is to get the candidates to talk about voting representation for our nation's capital outside of the district," he said.
Mark Plotkin, political commentator for WTOP radio (search) in Washington, agreed with Zherka's assessment.
"D.C.'s primary used to be in May. It has gotten more attention because it moved up. No one would have paid attention to us in May. The whole idea of this primary was public education," Plotkin said.
Because Washington, D.C. is not a great prize in terms of its number of delegates -- it has 38 -- the fact that Tuesday's contest is non-binding does not weaken the effort, Zherka said. He acknowledged, however, that the early contest "would have been more successful" had most of the major candidates not withdrawn.
"I'm tired of being D.C.'s talking head on voting rights," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, who participated in a news conference on primary day, in part to highlight residents' lack of full voting representation in Congress. She called the national attention the primary had received one mark of its success. As D.C.'s elected delegate to the House of Representatives, Norton is allowed to vote in committee, but has no privileges in the full House. The city has no voting representation in the U.S. Senate.
"Unless you get a lot of folks talking about [full voting representation] in the district and then outside the district, it's not going to happen," Norton said.
Despite the increased visibility of this issue as a result of the early primary, Plotkin said the local Democratic Party made a major strategic error. Initially, the local Democratic Party wanted a binding primary this year, but it buckled under the threat of being barred from the convention by the Democratic National Committee, which wanted to preserve the early scheduling of Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Had the D.C. Democratic Party been shut out of the convention, the whole world would have paid attention," Plotkin said. The primary "just wasn’t executed as well as it should have been, and the local party was the major culprit in that."
District Democrats said they will push to make D.C.'s 2008 primary the nation's first binding primary.
"We're going to make a statement to the entire country that everyone wants us to have the first primary in the nation, and then of course its going to be up to the Democratic Party to figure out what they're going to do about that," said Councilman Adrian Fenty, a Democrat who represents Ward 4. "Our secondary citizenship here in the United States makes us deserving of this more than Iowa and New Hampshire."
More than 74 percent of the registered voters in the city of 572,000 are registered Democrats. According to election records, 8.4 percent of registered Democrats cast ballots in 2000, down from 8.8 percent in 1996.
Fox News' Peter Brownfeld and the Associated Press contributed to this story.