The nine Democrats running for president face their first important test in the midwest state of Iowa Monday, January 19. The Iowa presidential caucuses formally begin the delegate selection process that will choose a Democratic presidential nominee at the national party convention in July. Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview of the presidential caucus and primary season that is about to begin.
In the early presidential contest states like Iowa and New Hampshire, supporters are won over one at a time. It is a process that is perhaps the closest thing to grassroots democracy. Although draining, most of the candidates like the interaction with real people.
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, one of the nine Democrats vying to challenge President Bush in the November election, said, "I love it. Iowa is a great democratic process. It may be wearing, but I will tell you, there is nothing more exciting than being able to meet fellow Americans the way we do in Iowa, go into living rooms, into barns, into Elks lodges, VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) posts and talk to regular Americans who have hopes about our nation."
The first two presidential contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, offer good examples in the different ways delegates are selected to the national nominating convention.
Democrats in Iowa will gather in precinct caucuses on January 19 to declare their preferences among nine contenders. The totals from each of nearly 2,000 precinct caucuses are used in a complicated formula to select delegates loyal to various candidates. Those results will be reported on caucus night and will give an early indication as to the strength of the various candidates.
New Hampshire will select delegates in a different way eight days after the Iowa vote. New Hampshire voters will take part in a primary election where they will go to a polling place and vote for the Democratic candidate of their choice. The candidates will win delegates based on the amount of public support they receive in the vote.
The candidates who do well in New Hampshire usually become strong contenders for the party nomination.
Throughout much of U.S. history, party conventions and political bosses played the crucial role in selecting presidential candidates. But political reforms beginning in the late 1960s shifted the power in the selection process to the state primaries and caucuses.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says that in turn has placed a premium on candidates doing well in the early contests of Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Iowa is the first test, followed a week later by New Hampshire," he said. "And after those two tests, we will know who is still in the race for the nomination, who has under-performed, who can raise money for another month or two of primaries and who will not have the resources to compete. Who will get the favorable media coverage and who will be left behind. So this is the process where we separate the serious contenders for the nomination from the also-rans."
And doing well in both Iowa and New Hampshire means spending lots of time campaigning in those states, in some cases for a year or two before the election.
Dante Scala, a close observer of New Hampshire politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester, says, "Certainly, insurgent candidates like Howard Dean find New Hampshire especially friendly. One, because it is a small state. You can drive through the whole state in just a few hours. You can reach voters very easily. And that is exactly what Howard Dean has done all year. He has been in the state numerous, numerous times."
That appears to be paying off since public opinion polls indicate Mr. Dean has a solid lead in New Hampshire. But as the primaries and caucuses get under way, the Democratic candidates are spending more time criticizing each other than President Bush.
But for candidate Dean, it is all part of running for president. "It is really a roller-coaster," he said. "I had no idea it was this much of a roller-coaster. You know, something great happens. Twenty-five-minutes later something terrible happens, then the next day something great happens. It is just amazing."
This year's primary season is starting earlier than ever, in part because Democrats want to settle on a party nominee as soon as possible to solidify support in advance of the general election against President Bush.
Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne says there is also heavy competition among the states to hold their primaries or caucuses earlier than ever.
"And states have found that the longer they wait, the less interest there is in their primary or caucus because somebody has taken the lead and created a bandwagon and is mobilizing support and money tends to follow the winner," he said. "So the states have basically what we call 'front-loaded' the process. They have moved their primaries earlier and earlier."
The Democrats will hold their national nominating convention in late July in Boston. The candidate who wins a majority of the convention's 4,300 delegates will become the nominee.
The Republicans will hold their national convention in New York City in late August. President Bush is unopposed as the Republican nominee. But his name must still be entered in primaries and caucuses in order to secure the majority of the 2,500 Republican delegates who will attend the party convention.
The U.S. presidential election will be held on November 2.