Posted: March 24, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware, the First State, has shown itself not so good at being second.

The state is on the verge of giving up a dream of a shining, second-in-the-nation presidential primary, which was supposed to make it the destination of choice for candidates looking for momentum or a comeback after the traditional leadoff primary in New Hampshire.

It was a giddy political fantasy, this idea of drawing household names like Clinton and Gore, Bush and McCain to living rooms, diners and twilight rallies from Claymont to Delmar, but it has popped.

New Hampshire saw to that. The state that starts the presidential campaign did not want the state that started the nation holding a primary only four days later. New Hampshire insisted on a full week to ensure a special splendor for the election that has made it the center of the political universe every four years since the tradition began in 1952.

New Hampshire warned Delaware to back off -- or else. Delaware wondered, or else what? In the winter of 1996, it scheduled a vote for a Saturday, the customary primary day here, on Feb. 24, just after New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday, Feb. 20, and found out what.

New Hampshire isn't called the Granite State for nothing.

It slapped a political embargo on Delaware's primary and warned the candidates not even to think about campaigning here. The New England state had so much clout that the top-tier candidates complied. At that point, nobody except Bill Clinton had been elected president under the modern primary system without winning there.

The Delaware dream died. Eight years and two feeble primaries later, the state is ready to salute New Hampshire and drop back in the presidential pack. Legislation is expected to be introduced as early as this week with bipartisan backing to switch the primary date to a week after New Hampshire's.

While the presidential calendar for 2004 is still fluid, it appears that New Hampshire would vote on Tuesday, Jan. 27, with Delaware voting on Tuesday, Feb. 3, along with South Carolina, Arizona, Missouri and perhaps Virginia.

Iowa still would go early on Monday, Jan. 19, with its presidential caucuses, which are small gatherings of voters choosing candidates under complex rules. New Hampshire doesn't care about caucuses.

Both the Democratic and Republican state chairmen support the primary bill, as does Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a first-term Democrat.

"The experiment we tried was just a complete and utter failure. We need to move on and make it work," said Richard H. Bayard, the Democratic state chairman. "People are so frustrated with it that the current posture on it, to change it, has percolated up from the bottom."

"We do need to move it," said J. Everett Moore Jr., the Republican state chairman. "There's no reason to keep going at loggerheads with New Hampshire."

State Sen. Robert I. Marshall, the Wilmington Democrat who was the prime sponsor of the law creating the second-in-the-nation primary, plans to introduce the bill that would move the date. House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, a Brandywine Hundred Republican, says he will co-sponsor it. The Democrats are the majority in the Senate, the Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Rather than hard feelings on Delaware's part, there appears to be an understanding of New Hampshire that comes from one small state to another with a self-identity of being first, even if New Hampshire's tradition is a half-century old to Delaware's two centuries-plus.

"This is not a First State thing," Smith said. "New Hampshire has the precedent. Our objective should be more practical than prideful."

In New Hampshire, Secretary of State William M. Gardner welcomed the truce. He is charged with conducting the first-in-the-nation primary and protecting it for the reputation and revenue it brings. "Finally we'd be on good terms," he said.

Gardner has been the secretary of state there since 1976. He has spent all of that time -- and four years earlier as a legislator -- fending off other states that want to supercede New Hampshire with primaries held earlier or at the same time (or four days later), but it has yet to be accomplished. This time around he is working to hold off Michigan.

"We're still there," Gardner said, crediting New Hampshire's stature in large part to its town-meeting mentality of demanding that candidates account for themselves and winnowing them out.

"People here are not intimidated by the candidates. They ask the darnedest questions," Gardner said.

Joseph A. Pika, a University of Delaware political science professor who wrote The Presidential Contest, was not surprised to see New Hampshire prevail because of what it has at stake.

"There's still this kind of mystique, and they continue to build it up," he said. "There have been generations of New Hampshirites who cherish this special role. It's in the blood of the politicos."

It is unclear whether Delaware will have any impact on the presidential scene with a new primary date, although it could.

New Hampshire's record of picking presidents is a little smudged of late because of Clinton and George Bush. Unlike their predecessors in the modern primary era, both of them became president without winning in New Hampshire, Clinton in the 1992 Democratic primary and Bush in the 2000 Republican primary.

As for Delaware, it could be the first of the mid-Atlantic states to hold a primary in 2004, and it does have that reputation of being somewhat representative of the country as a whole. That comes from voting for the victorious presidential candidate for every election from 1952 until 2000, when there but for Florida, it would have.

As Pika put it, a little mischievously, "We've gone with the winner of the popular vote, so the bellwether role isn't gone yet."