Alexander decries presidential primary system

Hank Hayes • Sep 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander claims that if professional football were presidential politics, ESPN’s SportsCenter would pick the Super Bowl combatants after only three or four preseason games.

The Tennessee Republican used the analogy during recent testimony before a Senate committee in describing what he calls a “broken” primary system of picking presidential nominees.

Nearly 30 states, including Tennessee, will be holding presidential primaries before Feb. 20, 2008.

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) calls the early primary calendar “more front-loaded than ever before.” Super Tuesday has turned into “Super-Sized Tuesday” because there are more than twice the number of states holding an early February primary since the last presidential election cycle, NASS said.

As a result, critics argue the presidential primary system is too driven by fund raising and costly media campaigns.

“Every four years the presidential nominating process does well to attract five or six credible candidates for the biggest job in the world — all but two or three of whom are eliminated after two contests (Iowa and New Hampshire),” Alexander, a former presidential hopeful, said in a prepared release.

Alexander has introduced bipartisan legislation that would reform the primary system but still keep Iowa and New Hampshire as the first caucus and primary in the nation.

“The presidential nominating process uses the equivalent of two preseason games in Iowa and New Hampshire to narrow the contest to two or three (candidates) — and sometimes pick the winner,” Alexander said. “At least 20 states will choose delegates in a one-day traffic jam on February 5th next year. Our legislation requires states to spread out the primaries and caucuses into a series of regional contests over four months.”

Alexander’s bill would create a region-by-region primary system where, on a rotating basis, states in the West, Midwest, South and East take turns hosting the first batch of primaries and caucuses.

Beginning in 2012, primaries and caucuses would start on the first Tuesday in March, continuing on the first Tuesday in April, May and June until each region has chosen candidates for the party conventions. The next presidential election year, a different region would have a chance to go first — rotating through each region every 16 years, according to the bill.

Letting Iowa and New Hampshire keep their traditional role as the nation’s first presidential caucus and primary would also allow underfunded and less widely known candidates to compete face to face with voters, NASS said.

But change in the primary system seems unlikely to happen any time soon. NASS favored a rotating regional presidential primaries plan seven years ago. Its plan was endorsed by a federal election reform commission chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker in 2005.

Still, Alexander notes his bill has also been introduced by U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. Co-sponsors include U.S. Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.; and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

Alexander said at the Senate hearing that he would offer an amendment to the legislation to allow presidential candidates start-up funds to raise $20 million in individual contribution amounts of up to $10,000. He noted the current limit of $2,300 makes it too difficult for many worthy but unknown candidates to raise enough early money to mount a serious campaign.

“Together, these two reforms — spreading out the primaries and allowing a ‘start-up’ fund for candidates — will increase the pool of good candidates willing to run for the White House and give more Americans the opportunity to hear their ideas and to cast a meaningful vote,” Alexander said.

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