The scramble by states to gain more of a voice in picking presidential nominees is turning what used to be a grueling primary season marathon into what one analyst calls "a 50-yard dash."
States have been edging primaries and caucuses earlier in recent elections, but California's decision this year to move to early March helped open the floodgates.
"When California moved, that shook everybody up," said Bill Jones, California's secretary of state. California's primary was in June for many years before switching to late March in 1996 and even earlier this time.
About half the states, representing three-fourths of party convention delegates, will hold primaries and caucuses between the end of January and March 14 -- before many voters typically start paying attention to the November election.
"Campaigns have started excessively early," William Galvin, secretary of the commonwealth in Massachusetts, said of the switch to earlier contests. "People on the streets, across America are not engaged. This is being left to the big contributors, political activists and campaign strategists."
Galvin is pushing for a rotating regional primary by 2004 that would allow a different region to lead off the process each presidential election season and give voters more time to consider the choices.
State officials are recruiting support for that plan and want the backing of the Republican and Democratic parties. The parties want a say in the process but have not committed to the plan.
The telescoped primary schedule, combined with expected record campaign fund raising, could give a huge advantage to front-runners like Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. And it may give them an incentive to be cautious.
"In a 50-yard dash, you can't stumble and still win," said political analyst Charlie Cook. "This helps front-runners who don't stumble but could really penalize a front-runner who does."
For 2000, some states are still jockeying for position near the front of the pack, traditionally led by Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary.
On Friday, the Democratic Party rejected challenges to the leadoff positions of Iowa and New Hampshire by Michigan and Washington state, but it has several other requests pending. The scramble should wrap up in the next few weeks as national parties try to settle on a schedule.
Louisiana plans a Republican caucus, similar to the one it held in 1996, several days before Iowa. Iowa elections officials are reassured by the heavy attention their state is getting from the front-runners.
"We don't feel like we're breaking tradition. Do they (Iowa officials) think they're going to be first forever? That's un-American," said Louisiana GOP chairman Mike Francis.
New Hampshire lawmakers are working to give their election officials the flexibility to move their primary to late 1999, if necessary, to hold the cherished spt as the leadoff primary.
Officials in many states acknowledge civic self-interest is driving the stampede and say an early primary is crucial for building excitement and the state parties.
"While Virginia is the mother of presidents, it is the selector of none," said David Hummell, a Republican official in Virginia, where the GOP agreed to hold a primary at the end of February instead of choosing delegates at party events several months later.
Written By Will Lester