The presidential primary landscape is crowded, presenting Gov. Janet Napolitano with a tough political puzzle to solve in her desire to give Arizona a say in the process.
State law puts the state’s 2008 presidential primary on Feb. 26, but the governor can pick a different date. And Napolitano knows the nominating process could be all but over by Feb. 5, if not earlier.
Early states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina hold caucuses or primaries in January, and Feb. 5 will see votes cast in a slew of states, including such delegate-rich states as California, New York and New Jersey. And Florida is bucking parties’ rules and jumped ahead to Jan. 29.
Napolitano is giving serious consideration to setting a date other than Feb. 26 but hasn’t yet decided what to do, said Dennis Burke, a Napolitano co-chief of staff.
“It’s all a question of making yourself as relevant as possible,” he said.
That’ll be tough to do, said William Mayer, a Northeastern University associate political science professor who studies presidential primary politics.
“There are a number of choices that Arizona can make, but none of them are terribly good,” Mayer said.
STATE VOTE IGNORED?
A Feb. 5 primary would mean that Arizona gets ignored in terms of news media coverage as states like California and New York get the lion’s share of attention, Mayer said. “Then the good news for Arizona is it will get more coverage than Vermont.”
Picking a date later than Feb. 5 on the chance that Arizona could be a kingmaker if the race is deadlocked after Feb. 5 could mean the state is ignored if the outcome is already decided, Mayer said. “Then the coverage really shuts down and Arizona stands a risk of getting literally zero (attention).”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Napolitano’s smartest play would be to violate the parties’ rules and pick a January date, despite penalties that cost Arizona delegates at the nominating conventions.
Said Sabato: “Who cares how many delegates you have at the national convention except the delegates?”
Burke said “all options” are on the table, but Napolitano so far has given no indication she is willing to have Arizona defy party rules and go earlier than Feb. 5.
If Napolitano picks a date other than Feb. 26, she has to do so 150 days in advance. That means she’d have to make her decision by September for an earlier date in February.
Burke said he expects Napolitano to make a decision this summer after “buying time” to study the lay of the land and the options’ pros and cons.
“Wait a little while longer. Something might break,” he said.
NO CANDIDATE INPUT
Burke said Napolitano hasn’t been lobbied by candidates on a primary date, but so far most of the attention regarding the Arizona primary is on the Democratic side. Sen. John McCain has a home-state advantage on the Republican side, though other GOP candidates also are paying attention.
McCain’s campaign did not respond to a query on whether McCain has a preference for a primary date, but spokesman Tucker Bounds said in an email that McCain expects “to receive strong support in his home state.”
The state Democratic Party used a Feb. 5 date in its 2008 delegationselection plan. But party officials insist they used Feb. 5 only because the actual date wasn’t yet known and because using an early date in the plan would mean candidates shouldn’t miss filing deadlines if the actual date is later.
Democratic Party Chairman David Waid declined to say what advice he’d given Napolitano, but Waid said the goal “is making sure we’re an important place for candidates to go.”
Arizona is already regarded as competitive in generalelection presidential politics but Waid and Burke said the state gains by being a player in primary politics through candidates addressing issues of concern and their campaigns both spending dollars that boost the local economy and helping to motivate activists and identify supportive voters.
IMMIGRATION AN ISSUE
In Arizona, issues likely to draw attention include immigration, open space and water concerns, Waid said. Immigration is big nationally, “but in a border state like ours, it’s even more of an important issue.”
Mayer said the argument that presidential primaries highlight a primary state’s issues has validity.
“There’s a plausible case to be made that we would not be half as concerned with ethanol if it weren’t for the fact that the first caucus takes place in a big corn-producing state,” Mayer said, referring to Iowa.
Conversely, racial issues get comparatively little attention during the Democratic Party’s primary season because Iowa and New Hampshire are predominantly white, Mayer said.
The Republican Party has no preference on a primary date, said spokesman Brett Mecum. “We really don’t care that much just because with the invention of the Super Duper Tuesday. It still kind of makes us irrelevant either way.”
Added Mecum: “The only thing that would make us more relevant would be to move it up before the Super Duper Tuesday, something along the lines of what Florida did.”