CONCORD, N.H. -- The Democratic Party isn't having much luck making sense of its presidential calendar.
The result is continuing confusion for candidates, voters and states, as the day that the first nominating ballots are cast draws closer. But precisely what that date is remains unanswered.
The latest installment of this political soap opera came this past week as the Democratic National Committee officially stripped Florida of its convention delegates as a penalty for the state party's decision to hold its primary on Jan. 29. Florida Democrats shot back with a suit claiming the DNC's move was unconstitutional.
A similar confrontation looms in Michigan, which has bumped its primary up even earlier, to Jan. 15. New Hampshire, meanwhile, continues to hold the political world in temporal suspense, creating further potential for disruption and defiance.
The party thought it had produced a reformed nomination road map last year, when its national committee members voted to allow two states, Nevada and South Carolina, to join the traditional gatekeepers, Iowa and New Hampshire, as the only January rungs in the presidential ladder.
Party caucuses were proposed for Iowa on Jan. 14 and Nevada on Jan 19. New Hampshire's primary would be on Jan. 22, to be followed by South Carolina, on Jan. 29. No other state, the DNC decreed, could choose its delegates before Feb. 5.
But events have repeatedly reminded the DNC that it has limited control over state parties and virtually none over either legislatures or William Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state. who has almost complete discretion in picking the date of its primary.
After Florida's legislature changed its date, the party notified the DNC, which said the date was against its rules and gave Florida's Democrats 30 days to recant. The 30 days expired last Sunday, which triggered the draconian penalty that few think will actually be imposed.
Michigan has not yet felt the party's official wrath, because, for the time being, the DNC is playing ostrich. Even though its Democratic governor has signed legislation mandating the Jan 15 date, the state party has yet to officially notify the DNC of the change. While national party officials read the newspapers, they say they won't take any action until they receive Michigan's official notice.
N.H. waits and watches
Sitting in his corner office in the New Hampshire State House Friday, Mr. Gardner insisted that he still hadn't determined the date for the closely watched Granite State primary.
He set the filing period for candidates for the iconic event for Oct. 15 to Nov. 2 -- earlier than in past elections cycles.
"I set that date because I could tell we might need a little extra time this year," he said.
Michigan's choice of the Jan. 15 date has informed speculation that New Hampshire will eventually opt for Jan. 8, forcing Iowans, in turn, to head out to their caucuses on Jan. 3 or Jan. 5. But Mr. Gardner warned against focusing on any one date, reiterating that he is going to wait until the dust settles on the other state's maneuvering before he commits himself.
The soft-spoken official noted, with a smile that the language of the state law that gives him discretion in choosing the primary date specifies that it can occur any time in the year of, or the year prior to the presidential election. At this point, he emphasized that he is not committed to any date, just to the tradition that his state will be first.
The DNC's action in stripping Florida of all its delegates sounds severe. But when the Democrats assemble in Denver next summer, their presidential nominee, not DNC Chairman Howard Dean, will control the committees that pass on the credentials of delegates. And it is inconceivable that any Democratic nominee would want to anger party activists in a state with so many electoral votes.
The only chance that the sanction might stand would be in the unlikely event that the Democrats go into their convention with their nomination still up for grabs. It's been decades since either party's convention has been anything but a rubber stamp for a nominee already chosen along the primary trail.
But Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Alcee Hastings, aren't taking any chances, as they charge, in their suit, that the national party is discriminating against Florida. The DNC counters that it has a constitutionally protected right of political association and that the state government has no right to impose a change in its rules.
"My feeling is that what this case is about is shaming the party into doing what is right, which is counting all the votes," said Nathaniel Persily, an election law expert on the faculty of Columbia University's law school who consulted on the case with the Florida plaintiffs. "Given everything that's happened in Florida elections in recent years, it's inconceivable that the party is going to go down this road."
Leading Michigan Democrats have been similarly adamant in their vows to defy the DNC. Sen. Carl Levin, a longtime campaigner against he primacy of the New Hampshire primary, joined Debbie Dingell, the state's national committeewoman, in warning Mr. Dean against sanctions.
"We are determined that Michigan not be bound by rules that are not effectively enforced against other states," the two Michigan Democrats said in a recent letter to Mr. Dean quoted in the Detroit News.
The calendar renegades, however, face a less official but so far more effective bar to their quest for the political spotlight. After Michigan enacted its new primary date, the Democratic chairs of the four designated opening states moved to guard their favored positions, extracting pledges from all of the leading Democratic candidates not to campaign in states flouting the DNC timetable. The candidates, eager not to offend, agreed not to campaign publicly, restricting their appearances to fund-raising events.
Sen. Barack Obama in Tampa last week touched the nerves of some activists in New Hampshire and Iowa by answering a few low-key questions after a private fundraiser. By the time he crossed the bay to a similar event in St. Petersburg, he had mended his ways, resolutely ignoring the shouted questions of reporters he passed in the street.
Everyone's ticked off
The actions of the candidates and the DNC have angered some prominent Democrats in both Florida and Michigan. While some dismiss the dispute as short-term, others warn that it could have more enduring consequences in terms of fundraising and voter enthusiasm.
"I'm more irritated at the DNC than the candidates,'' said Dave Woodward, chairman of the Oakland County, Mich., Democratic Party. "We need to have states in the beginning of the running that look like the rest of the country.''
"I don't think anyone walks away from this deal happy at all," said Bob Poe, a former state Democratic chairman in Florida. "I'm very disappointed in the candidates for having caved in. I think it was a mistake.''
Mr. Poe, an Obama supporter, said the candidates would pay a price in enthusiasm and contributions. "I'm supporting Obama, but I'm very disappointed in his decision,'' he said.
Wayne Hogan, a Jacksonville lawyer, is another traditional major contributor to Democratic candidates in Florida. He supports former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and said that while he regretted the campaigning boycott, it would not affect his support, financial or otherwise, for his fellow Southerner.
Howard Dean, the DNC boss, is another matter.
"I was supposed to be helping to organize a fund-raiser for the DNC," Mr. Hogan said last week. "Some other people are still going forward with that. ... I declined and I declined to make the contribution I had been intending to the DNC."
Mr. Poe, who was Florida's chairman during its unprecedented post-election struggle in 2000, is no stranger to tense political face-offs. He predicts that increasing political pressures will work to erode the campaign boycott.
"The candidates pulled the trigger too soon on this," he said. "It's not going to look the same way in November and December as it did in September. The landscape is going to be different and the pressures are going to be different and somebody is going to break ranks.''
He suggested, for example that if either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York or Mr. Obama, saw the other surging in the earlier states, the temptation would be to throw resources into Michigan or Florida to jumpstart their campaigns before the Feb. 5 mega-primary.
In the polling average compiled by the Web site, Pollster.com, Mrs. Clinton enjoys a wide lead among Florida Democrats, with 43 percent, followed by 19 percent for Mr. Obama, and 11 percent for Mr. Edwards. No other Democrat scored beyond single digits. Michigan yields a similar polling picture: Mr. Clinton, 42 percent; Mr. Obama, 22 percent and Mr. Edwards, 16 percent.
Bill Ballenger, editor of the authoritative publication, Inside Michigan Politics, noted that there have been reports that some Edwards supporters would prefer to see Michigan revert to its original plan, a February 9 caucus, a process that places a higher premium on organization than would an open primary.
Mr. Edwards' Michigan organization is abetted by his strong ties to labor and those of his campaign manager, former Michigan Rep. David Bonior. That would avert the anticipated showdown with the DNC, but the state's Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm is a firm supporter of the earlier date as are Mr. Levin and Ms. Dingell.
Short of an outright repudiation of the candidate boycott, observers in both Florida and Michigan said they were waiting to see how much surrogate campaigning would take place.
"There's no reason spouses can't come in,'' said Mr. Ballenger. "[Mrs. Clinton] has the best spouse there is as far as the Democrats are concerned.''
And just to add to the confusion, Carol Fowler, the South Carolina Democratic chair, said last week that she is considering a request to the DNC to advance the Palmetto State's primary as well to a date the same as or before that of the South Carolina Republican contest on Jan. 19, which is the date the DNC has reserved for Nevada.
"I don't want the media, or the voters to ignore us after the Republican date,'' she said.
But no domino falls on its own on the Democratic table. Mr. Fowler's suggestion that South Carolina might move to Jan. 19 immediately triggered speculation that Nevada, which had been counting on that date, would now want to move up as well.
The GOP field faces uncertainty, too, with the New Hampshire question mark and its likely ripple effect on Iowa. The Republicans have avoided the infighting of the Democrats however, as the national party isn't threatening sanctions and its leading candidates have said they will campaign in all the major contests. They will, for example, assemble in Michigan this week, for a televised debate.
The Democratic squabbles have stirred confusion, consternation, and the potential for significantly altering the nomination dynamics, but there are varied opinions on whether they might have any longer term consequences.
"Michigan is a blue state, it might have a slight tinge of purple, but it's likely to be a blue state in 2008 as well,'' said Mr. Ballenger, the Michigan analyst. "There's the backdrop of 2000, the idea of not letting people vote," said Mr. Poe, the former Florida, chairman. "I think it triggers resentment in the base and your might have a backlash in the African-American community.''
Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.