A Primary Primer

Douglas Kiker of the CBS News Political Unit previews the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries.

The Democratic National Committee has advanced a front-loaded 2004 primary calendar to try to spit out a nominee in record time. That means the Democratic presidential candidates have less than three months until the real action begins.

Iowa and New Hampshire have again won their "first-in-the-nation" status, with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary to Jan. 27, both several days earlier than in 2000 and nearly a month earlier than in 1996.

Iowa votes will be hard sought by most of the Democratic hopefuls, save Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman, both of whom announced earlier this week that they'll be skipping the caucuses, at least in part because neither had a realistic chance of winning the organization-intensive event. Look for a dogfight between Dick Gephardt – who won Iowa in 1988 only to finish second in New Hampshire and drop out of the race after running out of money – and Howard Dean. The pair is neck and neck in the Iowa polls, but John Kerry and John Edwards are fighting hard as well.

A scant eight days after Iowa, New Hampshire holds its primary. A win, or at least a very strong showing, will be vital for Kerry, who hails from neighboring Massachusetts. Dean, from neighboring Vermont, surged ahead of Kerry during the summer and continues to lead, though the margin varies from poll to poll. The others, including Iowa-skippers Clark and Lieberman, are all competing full-out in New Hampshire and hoping to "get on the board," presumably by finishing no worse that fourth.

Unlike previous years, there's no break between New Hampshire and the rest of the primary calendar. The following week, on Feb. 3, seven more states weigh in, including some with a more centrist bent: Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Clark and John Edwards have indicated they'll both be looking for their first wins on Feb. 3. Edwards will be paying a lot of attention to South Carolina. A Palmetto State native and senator from North Carolina, he is banking on a strong showing to give his campaign a boost. Clark, an Arkansan and military man, is also expected to devote significant time to South Carolina and its hordes of retired vets. Between 40 and 50 percent of South Carolina primary voters are expected to be black and so far none of the candidates, including Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, have made significant inroads with these voters.

New Mexico has a new party-run primary that day which will be the candidates' first test with Hispanic voters, who will be key in the general election. Look also for Lieberman and Clark to try to score in the other states on Feb. 3, especially Arizona, Delaware and Oklahoma. Gephardt will push hard in North Dakota, which is full of Midwesterners like himself, and is hoping to chalk up a good chunk of delegates from his home state of Missouri.

On Feb. 7, Democrats will caucus in Michigan. With the calendar as front-loaded as it is, and the potential for several candidates to pick up a handful of delegates each, Michigan is likely to be hard fought. This will be the first primary to allow Internet voting, which Dean and Clark are pushing but Sharpton and others are attacking as disproportionately harmful to minority voters.

On Feb. 8, Maine will hold its caucuses, and while no one has paid much attention to Maine so far, it could, like Michigan, end up being a battle.

Two more Southern states, Tennessee and Virginia, have primaries on Feb. 10, when the District of Columbia also holds its official, party-sanctioned vote. D.C. has also scheduled a non-binding "beauty contest" for Jan. 13, which breaks DNC rules about Iowa and New Hampshire going first and therefore doesn't count toward any delegates.

Wisconsin, a swing state in 2000 that's divided neatly between Madison liberals and Midwestern moderates, has its primary on Feb. 17. With no other states going that day, there could be a dogfight as the candidates try to lock up every delegate possible going into the biggest day of all, March 2, or Super Tuesday.

Super Tuesday could indeed be super in 2004, with voting in eleven states: California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington State. (Texas was also supposed to vote on March 2, but because of its redistricting brouhaha, it could be delayed until March 30. A decision will be made by the end of November.) Every campaign will find some hope in the March 2 list, with states West, East, North and South, large and small, not to mention liberal, moderate and conservative all up for grabs. It could be argued that a nominee will emerge on March 3 – or that the political world will wake up to a jumbled mess of several candidates with enough delegates to move on for another week.

March 9 is Southern Tuesday – Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi – and with Bob Graham no longer in the race, Florida, and its 228 delegates, is back in play. After the March 9 votes are counted, 82 percent of the delegates will have been determined and the nominee will most likely be known.

If, however, things are still not settled, Illinois votes on March 16, Colorado on April 13, Pennsylvania on April 27 and Indiana on May 4.

The DNC Convention begins in Boston on July 26.

By Douglas Kiker