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Gary Younge

The 2004 Republican national convention, where the winner of the party’s state primaries is unveiled. Photograph: Stephan Savoia/AP
Primary season gets shorter and sharper as states vie for influence

"It's nice living in New Hampshire because we get to see the candidates at first hand," says Steve Lindsey, a local cab driver. "We see how they hold themselves on a public stage. We get to put matches in their shoes and then hold their feet to the fire."

Margaret Spicer adds: "My family is in Oregon and they ask me what I think about the candidates because I get to meet them and they don't."

It is in these moments that the received wisdom of national punditry can be confounded. New Hampshire is where Bill Clinton became the "Comeback Kid" and both Bushes nearly had their campaigns derailed.

"You get to look them in the eye and test the sincerity of their handshake," says Muriel Allard, who met Republican Mitt Romney in the Puritan restaurant on the outskirts of Manchester earlier in the day. "That makes a difference."

They call it retail politics: that small window in the political calendar when those who aspire to leadership of the free world must go to small towns such as Keene (pop: 22,780) and press the flesh at diners, making small talk with people who haven't already paid to see them. Away from the razzmatazz of the big meetings and the expense of television advertising, presidential hopefuls must first be tested at close quarters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states in the nomination process.

Hence, on any given day, somewhere in a rural area, the future president is flipping burgers, playing bat the rat or casually chatting with firemen.

But now this brief spell of substantive, personal political interraction is under threat. Other states, envious of New Hampshire and Iowa's kingmaking roles, are shifting their primaries forward. The result is a longer campaigning season which reinforces the importance of money, confounds political strategists, and could eventually extinguish one of the few unscripted elements of US presidential campaigns.

Battle for influence

The most obvious effect of these changes has been to make the nominating process start earlier as each state seeks to preserve its influence. South Carolina's Republican party has announced its intention to move its primary forward to January 19.

That would change the date of New Hampshire's primary since the state is bound by law to hold its primary a week before any other. Since Iowa is compelled to hold its caucuses at least eight days before any other voting, it too will have to move forward. An election season that is usually competitive until March could effectively be over by mid-January.

In a bid to stop the avalanche, Iowa's governor has at least pledged not to bring its primary into 2007.

"Nobody has any power to stop them," says James Pindell, The Boston Globe's commentator on New Hampshire politics. "They pay for them and they decide when they take place."

The parties can penalise states, but are reluctant to do so. On Saturday, Florida Democrats will try to reach a compromise with the national party over their desire to move up the calendar.

Other large states have also moved their dates forward. On February 5 almost two dozen states representing more than half the national population, including California, New York and Illinois, will vote on what has been called "super-duper Tuesday". By the same time in 2004 only nine states - all relatively small - had voted.

The challenge to Iowa and New Hampshire's primacy is not without basis. As two of the least diverse and most rural states in the country they are hardly demographically representative. Yet they get to winnow down the candidates before New Yorkers, Angelenos or Chicagoans get a look-in.

But the abrupt change in calendar is having a major effect on some candidates' strategies. The Republican frontrunner, Rudolph Giuliani, is not competing seriously in either Iowa or New Hampshire, preferring instead to take his chance on super-duper Tuesday. But that has not stopped him making the occasional appearance in Iowa recently.

Neither he nor McCain participated in the Iowa Republican straw poll in Ames earlier this month in what was historically seen as the first display of a Republican candidate's strength.

It has also transformed the style of events, particularly for Democrats. "The candidates are spending less time in diners meeting people individually and more time in gymnasiums and big halls with much bigger crowds," says Pindell.

In 2003 Lisa O'Neill, of Derry, New Hampshire, staged an event for Howard Dean in her front garden. This year she's supporting Hillary Clinton but says she couldn't do the same thing for her. "If we did we'd regret it. We'd have 2,000 people in our front yard."

But most pundits believe the overall effect of all this front-loading will be to enhance the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire and accelerate the pace at which parties settle on a nominee.

"Super-duper Tuesday is turning into a super-duper dud," says Pindell. "They've made Iowa and New Hampshire more important. No one can compete in 22 states on one day so they need the push and free press that a victory in Iowa or New Hampshire can bring."

Accelerated pace

It also limits the time candidates have to regain their footing after a bad showing. Bill Clinton did not really clinch the nomination until early March, roughly the same stage as John Kerry. But with the new timetable the whole process will be over within weeks. "Candidates once had time to gain momentum," says Pindell. "They will now have one week rather than one month to do it."

Peverill Squire, politics professor at the University of Iowa, agrees: "It has increased the importance of Iowa rather than diminished it; a number of the candidates see Iowa as their best chance."

This is true of the Republicans among whom, although Mr Giuliani enjoys a short lead, there is no clear frontrunner and the field is volatile.

Among the Democrats, John Edwards is neck and neck with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in Iowa even though he trails considerably nationally. Faring well there is his only hope for competing with the deep pockets and celebrity of the two frontrunners.

The truth is that because the timetable is both unprecedented and unpredictable it has made campaign strategists anxious and pundits unreliable.

As Allan Lichtman of American University told the Washington Post: "If you're facing a moving chessboard, it's pretty difficult to know where to make your first move."

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