Mich. Democrats Eye Earlier Caucus Date

Michigan Democrats want to hold their presidential caucuses near the front of the pack in 2004. But a lack of consensus over the date, and an undecided United Auto Workers, a major political player, are complicating the effort.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Dingell want the Democratic caucuses on Jan. 27, the same day New Hampshire tentatively has set for its primary.

But other Democrats would prefer Feb. 7, with some expressing concern that New Hampshire could pressure the presidential candidates into honoring its first-in-the-nation-primary status by not campaigning in Michigan.

"There is a historical pattern that the Democrats are reluctant to tamper with and that none of the Democratic candidates want to risk tampering with because they don't want to risk angering the earliest venues," said David Rohde, a political science professor at Michigan State University.

The Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, back the earlier date. But the UAW remains on the fence, with Dick Long, who directs the group's political operation, saying the union has not yet taken a position.

A change also would violate Democratic National Committee rules, which allow only Iowa and New Hampshire to hold their presidential caucuses and primary before Feb. 3, 2004. DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe sent a letter to Michigan State Central Committee members which said that would be bad for the party, the candidates and the state, which risks having its delegates not seated at the convention if it defies the rules.

"If you chose Saturday February 7, you would offer presidential candidates 128 pledged delegates on one day - exactly half the number chosen by the six earlier states combined," said the letter dated Wednesday. "This will not go unnoticed by the presidential campaigns as they begin to map strategies or by the media."

Detroit officials also have been told the city could lose its chance to host the 2008 Democratic National Convention if Michigan holds its caucuses on Jan. 27.

The state Democratic rules committee plans to meet Sunday to choose a date - or dates - as part of a delegate selection plan it will put out for 30 days of public comment.

"Carl and I are going to push that we go the same day as New Hampshire," said Dingell, the wife of Michigan's senior congressman, John Dingell. "At the moment, I think we're doing OK."

Michigan Democratic Executive Chairman Mark Brewer said he's still drafting the plan for the rules committee, so it's too early to say what date - or dates - will be suggested. But Michigan is certain to go earlier than it did in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore was the only Democrat still in the race by the time Michigan Democrats held their mid-March caucuses.

The final decision on 2004 won't be made until April 26, when the state's 400-member Democratic State Central Committee meets to vote.