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Caucuses will face attacks before 2012

Jane Norman // Published January 6, 2008 in DeMoines Register

Iowa's presidential caucuses on Thursday saw record turnout, a smooth tabulation process and the victory of a black candidate, Barack Obama, in a state that's 95 percent white.

The Republican victor, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, conducted the kind of retail campaign that's given Iowa its reputation as a place where little-known candidates can gain a foothold.

"In a regional primary, a guy like Huckabee would never stand a chance," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia.

Yet political leaders and electoral experts predict that Iowa's first-in-the-nation status will be under attack once again before the 2012 contest, and that the state will have to battle harder than ever to retain its traditional role.

Soon, national Republicans gathering for their annual winter meeting will begin debating whether the nominating process should be changed, and how. "We're almost certain to have a fight on our hands at the national convention," said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa.

On a separate track, legislation to require regional primaries and erase Iowa's primacy remains pending in Congress.

"I have an absolute certainty there will be an impetus to change the process," said Rep. Bruce Braley, a Waterloo Democrat, on Friday. "I have had members of Congress, from the House and the Senate, who have made it very clear to me: 'Enjoy it while you can.' But I feel a lot better armed to counter those arguments after last night."

Not everyone feels the same. "This is a cockamamie system to nominate someone for the most powerful position in the world," Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and longtime foe of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, said before the caucuses. He was not available for comment Friday.

Public sentiment may be on the side of Iowa's many critics. A national survey conducted in mid-December for the Associated Press and Yahoo News found that 80 percent of those questioned would prefer a system in which states take turns holding their primaries and caucuses first.

The survey of 1,821 adults said 53 percent thought that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have too much influence on who wins the party nominations; the survey said 38 percent thought it was the right amount of influence.

Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses regularly are pilloried as unfair because the state is too small and lacking in racial diversity and because candidates tend to cater to issues of specific interest like ethanol and farm policy.

Democrats tried to deal with the complaints by moving up the caucus and primary dates in Nevada and South Carolina. But it led to even more jockeying by Michigan and Florida. As a result, the Iowa caucuses were set earlier than ever - so irritating members of Congress that a flurry of bills emerged mandating federal scheduling of primaries and caucuses.

This year, concerns also were raised that people working at night, such as nurses or firefighters, can't attend the evening caucuses. Iowans serving in the military overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan also are left out of the process.

On Friday, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, campaigning in New Hampshire, cited those factors in discounting her third-place showing in Iowa.

"This is a new day, this is a new state, this is a primary election," she said in Manchester, according to Politico.com. She said of New Hampshire voters, "You're not disenfranchised if you work at night. You're not disenfranchised if you're not in the state."

Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, an organization that advocates for wider participation in elections, said that disenfranchisement is a legitimate criticism and that it's "crazy" to keep Iowa first.

"The deeper conversation our nation needs to have is can we have a fair process," he said, and perhaps consideration of regional primaries.

"I think there's great value in a smaller number of contests," Richie said. "It just shouldn't be in one state all the time."

But Scott Brennan, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said Thursday's results are "significant in helping our cause to keep Iowa first."

He cited the ease with which results were transmitted to the media and the "staggering" turnout of about 359,000 Iowans between the two parties. There are 2,054,000 registered voters. "I think the turnout issue falls by the wayside," he said.

The top three finishers in Iowa were a black man (Obama, an Illinois senator), a Southerner (former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards) and a woman (Clinton), Brennan pointed out.

"I think Iowans are very open-minded and that's proven," he said.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., said he is "extremely proud" of Iowans from both parties for turning out at the caucuses, and for his party for its management of the crowds. "I think this bodes well for us," he said. "On both sides of the aisle, Iowans took this very seriously."

Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro said the National Association of Secretaries of State will meet this spring at Harvard University to discuss regional primaries as states try to decide how to proceed. "I think we proved more than ever we still should be first in the nation," he said.

But Mauro also said that if turnout continues to be so large at caucuses in the future, "there needs to be a better way of counting, a better way of verifying" attendance and candidate support. "It's a great piece of democracy," he said. "It just needs to be retooled."

National Republican officials said that as the GOP once again talks about whether to continue to allow Iowa to go first, much will depend on who is selected as the eventual nominee. After President Bush won Iowa in 2000, any plans to change the process were scuttled.

Braley insisted complaints that too few people in Iowa are deciding the future of the presidency are no longer valid. "As soon as I walked into my precinct, I knew immediately this was going to be a bin-buster of a caucus night," he said. "This was a resounding rebuke."