The presidential nominees from both major U.S. political parties could be chosen earlier than ever next year, in large part because California and several other states are moving up the dates of their presidential primaries. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has more on the accelerating presidential calendar from Washington.

California, the state with the largest population, traditionally held its presidential primary in June.

But with many states holding primaries earlier than ever, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed legislation to shift California's primary from June to February 5 of next year.

"Holding our presidential primaries in June used to mean that nominees were locked (effectively chosen) before we ever had the chance to vote," he said. "(Now) We are participating in deciding who the candidates will be."

Several other large states are poised to follow California's lead and move their presidential primaries to February 5 as well, including New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey.

In all, it is possible that two dozen states will hold primaries on February 5 next year. If that happens, more than half of the delegates at stake for the party nominating conventions will be chosen on that date.

With so many states moving their primaries earlier than ever in the election season calendar, February 5 is shaping up as a kind of national primary day for the 20 or so Democratic and Republican presidential contenders.

John Fortier is a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a recent guest on VOA's Encounter program.

"Many states are rushing to that February 5 date, and so you see a very, very large percentage of the delegates, more than a majority, likely to be selected on that February 5 date, which has become a very, very significant date that we have not seen in the past," he said.

Fortier says the accelerated primary calendar next year makes it even more important than in the past for candidates to do well in the pre-primary campaign period, which is already underway with an unexpected intensity.

Several candidates from both parties have made numerous campaign trips to the early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which will initiate the presidential nominee selection process next January.

Expert John Fortier says there is a lot of early pressure on the presidential contenders this year to raise lots of money, improve their visibility with the public and score well in public opinion polls before any meaningful votes are taken.

"If candidates like John McCain and Hillary Clinton do better than expected, they will get a boost," Fortier said. "If they do not do as well, there may be some other candidates who are able to make their case because of an opening and perceived strength. So, it really is a money (fundraising) and perception primary that is going on with pollsters, the media and the money raisers in the next nine months before we actually start this process of voting in primaries in January of 2008."

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack was the first candidate to withdraw from the Democratic nomination contest last month after having difficulties in raising money for his campaign.

American University scholar Lewis Wolfson expects more contenders to drop out this year as they struggle to gain visibility and raise the millions of dollars necessary to mount a serious presidential campaign in 2008.

"There is a sense that, boy, with all those candidates, it is probably wide open," Wolfson said. "But there is a feeling, I think, inside of politics, that this is going to narrow even before the primaries, especially since we have the media doing polling every two or three weeks."

The holding of a so-called super primary next February 5 could benefit high-profile candidates who are already near the top of public-opinion polls and who have raised a lot of money for the 2008 campaign.

That would include Republicans like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Senator John McCain and Democrats like Illinois Senator Barack Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

"If we steel ourselves to all of the criticism and the counterattacks and the stereotypes and everything that they will put out, then we will be victorious," Clinton said. "I have a little experience in staying the course and in sticking with people who stick with me."

Forcing candidates to compete in several large states at once could hurt less well-known candidates struggling to gain political momentum.

Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore remains confident of his chances, despite his low poll ratings among Republican presidential hopefuls.

Gilmore recently spoke to a firefighters union convention in Washington.

"These are the credentials that I bring before this hall here today and why, at the end of the day, that I am going to defeat these people that the media people have considered to be the leading candidates, and that means that I will win this nomination over McCain, Romney and Mayor Giuliani," the governor said. "I can assure you of that."

Many experts believe serious presidential candidates will have to raise $100 million by early next year to compete in the compressed schedule of primaries and caucuses.

Experts also believe it is likely that the presidential nominees from both parties will be known by February or March of next year, setting up a general election campaign that will last until Election Day, November 4, 2008.