Let's talk about 2012 primaries

Michigan joined the national game of Presidential Primary Leap-Frog Wednesday when its state Senate voted to move the Michigan primary to Jan. 15. Meanwhile, Oregon's primary remains scheduled for May 20 — when it will all be over but the shouting.

Leaving aside the unseemly spectacle of televised "debates" between declared candidates more than two years before November 2008, the primary calendar now threatens to advance into December 2007.

Michigan's move — widely expected to pass both houses and be signed by the governor — puts that state's primary only a day after the Iowa caucuses. Iowa's state law says its caucuses must be held at least eight days before any other state's contest.

New Hampshire — traditionally the other "first in the nation" state — must hold its primary at least a week before any other primary under state law. The New Hampshire primary is currently set for Jan. 22.

Michigan's move could prompt New Hampshire to jump to Jan. 8. That would push Iowa into December if it wanted to stay eight days ahead, although its state law can be waived to avoid conflict with holidays.

This is not a call for Oregon lawmakers to hold a special session and get into the game. The presidential nominating process is already fouled up beyond all recognition, to use a time-tested military phrase.

Even if Oregon managed to join the "Super Tuesday" scrum on Feb. 5, which now includes about 20 states, it would be unlikely to attract much attention from campaigns because of the competition. Super Tuesday includes California, New York and Illinois, which offer so many delegates that smaller states are bound to be left out of the action.

No, it is time to write off the 2008 campaign season as an aberration, and begin now to fix the process for the 2012 election.

That won't be easy.

The problem with the presidential nominating process is that no one is in charge. The two major parties control the allocation of delegates at their respective national conventions, but those rules are subject to change.

For instance, the Democrats' rules bar most states from holding primaries before Feb. 5 — and require that voting in the 2008 election cannot take place before 2008.

But Florida (Jan. 29) and now Michigan are thumbing their noses at the party. The Democratic National Committee's rules panel meets this weekend, and could vote to deny national convention delegates to states voting in January.

Even if the Democrats take that step, most observers doubt it would be enforced if the presumptive nominee insisted that all states be represented at the convention.

So the parties control the delegates — sort of — and the states control the dates — up to a point.

One rational solution that some have proposed — including Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury — is a system of rotating regional primaries. States could be grouped geographically, making it easier for candidates to campaign there, and the regions would take turns being first.

Iowa and New Hampshire could even remain ahead of everyone else, although it is hard to argue that they should.

Creating order out of the chaos that this election already has become will take time and effort. All the more reason to start now.

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