WASHINGTON – For half a century, New Hampshire's status as the first-in-the-nation primary was sacrosanct. In no small part, this was due to the Granite State's track record: Every four years it picked the eventual White House winner.
That perfect string was broken in 1992 when Bill Clinton finished second to Paul Tsongas, and in 2000 when John McCain stunned George W. Bush. While those results smudged New Hampshire's image, a greater threat is coming from Democrats in Michigan and the District of Columbia which are determined to grab the leadoff role.
These rivals to New Hampshire believe their rebellion, frowned upon by the Democratic National Committee, gives them a share of the national spotlight while forcing the candidates to focus on their local concerns.
"I see an absurdity in a system where candidates make dozens of visits to New Hampshire and understand their issues so thoroughly," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who has been pushing for a change for nearly two decades. "We have a lot of issues that are important to us. We're a Great Lakes state, we have water issues, garbage being dumped in Michigan. ... We're more diverse than New Hampshire."
Although Michigan has an open presidential primary Feb. 24, Levin has proposed a Michigan caucus for Democrats on Jan. 27 - the tentative date for New Hampshire's primary. And like a shadow, if New Hampshire moves its date, Michigan would do the same.
Levin has the backing of the state party's committee and the new Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm. State Democrats will consider the proposal at meetings on Saturday and Monday.
The District of Columbia has taken the initial steps to hold its presidential primary on Jan. 13. The move would require the approval of Congress, and staff aides to Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said he will not interfere in that local decision. The House panel has jurisdiction over district matters.
Democrats in other states have complained privately that the largely white New Hampshire population does not represent the diversity of Democratic voters. Still others are simply sympathetic to Michigan's challenge.
"There should be a debate about why New Hampshire should dominate this process other than tradition," said South Carolina's Democratic chairman, Dick Harpootlian. His state's primary is Feb. 3.
States like to go first in the process because it draws plenty of media attention, puts their issues in the forefront of the presidential campaign and helps energize state parties. Candidates compete in those early states because winning can bring them momentum, money and media coverage.
Iowa still starts the process with its caucuses Jan. 19, 2004, and Arizona, Delaware and Missouri will be joining South Carolina with primaries Feb. 3.
In all, up to a dozen states are considering holding primaries or caucuses by the end of February - which is a challenge to the campaigns.
"We don't know what states are moving where, we don't know what candidates will still be in the race," said Steve Elmendorf, a veteran political planner advising Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.
In response to Michigan's move, the DNC has threatened not to seat more than half of the state's delegates at the presidential convention in Boston next summer. Understandably, few Democrats in Detroit or Grand Rapids, Mich., fear the national committee's wrath.
After all, Michigan has a population of 9.9 million, strong numbers among the labor unions and 17 electoral votes. Among its likely delegates would be Rep. John Dingell, the most senior Democrat in the House.
"No nominee in his right mind would say we're not going to seat Michigan delegates," Levin said. "I'm very confident that the convention will not penalize Michigan."
Still, the DNC is fighting to protect its new calendar.
"Rules are rules," said DNC spokesman Guillermo Meneses.
And New Hampshire is looking to the national party to prevail, the presidential candidates to come to its defense or for Michigan to back down for the sake of Democratic unity.
"I am hopeful that if Michigan goes down this unfortunate path, that our candidates are willing to stand up for the rules of the DNC," said New Hampshire's Democratic chairwoman, Kathy Sullivan.