April In Paris, New Year's In Des Moines?

(John P. Filo/CBS)
Jeff Greenfield is senior political correspondent for CBS News.
April in Paris? Everyone's romantic dream. Autumn in New York? The best time of all in the Big Apple. Christmas in Killarney? Yes, 'tis grand to be Irish at holiday time.

Now how about … New Year's in Des Moines?

No, it's not a well-known song, it's where the Republican presidential candidates — and the army of operatives, organizers, and media types — will be spending their holiday season now that the Iowa Republican Party has decided to shift its first in the nation caucus date from January 14 to January 3. So, with the New Year's hangover still banging in our heads, and with the college football marathon only starting to wind down, Iowa Republicans will be gathering in school cafeterias, libraries, living rooms, and gyms to start the process of picking the next president.

Why? Because Michigan, long frustrated at politicking in the shadow of Iowa and New Hampshire, effectively decided "to hell with the national party rules" and moved its primary all the way from February 26 to January 15 — a day after the scheduled Iowa caucuses. Since Iowa has a law requiring its caucuses to be at least a week earlier than anyone else's process, which forced a change … sort of.

In fact, what it did was, at least as of this writing, top split the Iowa caucuses into two different dates: one for the GOP, one for the Democrats. And here's why:

The Democratic National Committee has told Michigan (and Florida, which also moved up its primary to January 29) that it would lose all its convention delegates if it went ahead with the change (most people think there's no way the Democrats will dis these two big competitive states). More important, all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates promised not to campaign in Michigan or Florida (they can only go to those states to raise money, which raises the fascinating notion of the Party of the People allowing candidates only to talk to people with a lot of money — but that's another story).

So Iowa Democrats, seeing the Michigan contest as essentially meaningless, have for now said, "we think we'll leave our caucuses on the 14th of January." (This is, of course, subject to change — especially once they know what New Hampshire will decide to do).

But the Republican presidential candidates do plan to campaign Florida and Michigan. So Iowa Republicans have decided to move their caucuses out of Michigan's shadow — thus their different dates.

And what about New Hampshire, you ask? Well, we don't know when that primary is, but the secretary of state, who can set the primary date on his say so, is hinting that maybe, just maybe, he will move that primary to … December 11 (yes of this year).

So what does all this mean? Well, imagine you're Mitt Romney, who's spent millions building a lead in Iowa. Or Mike Huckabee, hoping to catch fire with a long-shot campaign. Their strategy is linked to Iowa being first. If it turns out it's three weeks after New Hampshire they — and every other candidate — will suddenly have to rethink decisions about money, organization, and campaign appearances.

Not to mention what happens to the hotel bookings and vacation plans of us journalists.