Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Calendar story a yawn, but not Hillary and John

I tend not to write much about how the political parties are always tinkering with the presidential primary calendar, because I sense that only the most hardcore junkies are fascinated by the debate over what state should go first, or whether Iowa and New Hampshire should be joined at the starting gate by more populous states, or whether the whole system should be "front loaded" with small states and "back loaded" with big states, or some form of vice versa. I used to shlepp myself to national party confabs in places like Indianapolis, listen to endless internecine debates about this stuff, take a lot of notes -- and then the whole story would quietly die several months later when party leaders put the kibosh on an overhaul.

So I have largely ignored the doings this past weekend in Washington, where a Democratic National Committee panel decided to crowd Iowa and New Hampshire at the top of the '08 primary calendar by adding early contests in South Carolina and Nevada; all four will take place prior to Feb. 5 of that year. The Democrats clearly are aiming for a more diverse early electorate. Nevada has burgeoning suburbs, a big union presence around Las Vegas, and a growing Hispanic population; South Carolina would presumably offer the prospective nominees a chance to test their early appeal in an Old Confederacy red state.

Whatever. I am blase about these tinkerings, maybe because of what happened in 1988, when the Democrats, hoping to tilt the playing field for a candidate with southern appeal, bunched most of their southern primaries on one day and called it Super Tuesday -- and wound up nominating Michael Dukakis from Massachusetts, who subsequently lost every southern state on election day.

However, one incident at the weekend DNC meeting is truly worth recounting, because it provides fresh evidence of the ongoing rivalry between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. That alone is worth watching during the long runup to 2008.

The tipoff came when Harold Ickes, a former senior staffer in the Bill Clinton White House and a certified Friend of Hillary, spoke at the meeting in his capacity as a DNC member. He argued strongly against giving South Carolina an early slot, because that would be an automatic win for John Edwards (who was born there, and represented neighboring North Carolina while in the Senate). He lost his argument, but repeated it again for CNN: "The fact is that if he runs, and I think he is running, that South Carolina will be considered almost his home state and...I just don't think it is going to be taken seriously (by other candidates). The purpose of moving these states up is that they will be taken seriously."

He said that his objections to South Carolina "have nothing to do with Hillary or anti-Hillary," but that strains credulity.

The polls of Democratic voters show that Edwards, the '04 vice presidential nominee, is arguably Hillary Clinton's toughest rival. (Al Gore finishes second to Hillary in the latest horse-race surveys, but he has given no indication that he'll run; John Kerry is roughly at parity with Edwards in third place, but nobody except Kerry thinks he has a shot.) Edwards is a more galvanizing speaker. In a June Gallup poll of Democratic voters, he was ranked the most acceptable candidate (71 percent rated him as acceptable, 25 percent said he was unacceptable. Hillary came next, at 69-25.)

And, most importantly, Edwards has that southern pedigree. One of the biggest threats to the Clinton candidacy is the widely held perception within the party that she would get shut out below the Mason Dixon line, dismissed as yet another northern Democratic liberal. Ickes may be right about the South Carolina primary: If Hillary competes with Edwards there and loses big, the press will write that she can't win in the South. If she cedes that primary to Edwards by staying away, the press will write that she has acknowledged she can't win in the South.

The rivalry talk surfaced at the 2004 convention, when Edwards was tapped for the ticket, and Hillary's people issued the usual denials. So it was amusing to learn of an incident that took place this past spring. When Hillary's people learned that Edwards was slated to address the National Press Club in June, they demanded that the organization give Hillary a speech gig in May.

But for those of you who want to track the rivalry during the next 18 months, it's best to start with the best anecdote of all.

Where: The floor of the U. S. Senate. When: During the prelude to the Iraq war.

Clinton wanted a speaking slot in prime time, so she could explain at length why she was voting for President Bush's war authorization resolution. Her request was granted. Then Edwards rushed to the floor and asked for a speaking slot. Democratic leaders said no, because all the time was alotted. Whereupon Clinton said to him (in a voice loud enough for the galleries to hear), "Just stand there and look pretty, John."