CHICAGO -- Democrats shook up tradition on Saturday by vaulting Nevada and South Carolina into the first wave of 2008 presidential contests along with Iowa and New Hampshire -- a move intended to add racial and geographic diversity to the early voting.
The decision by the Democratic National Committee leaves Iowa as the nation's first presidential caucus and New Hampshire as the first primary, but wedges Nevada's caucuses before New Hampshire and South Carolina's primary soon afterward.
The move also packs all four state contests into a politically saturated two weeks in January. The change means a potentially huge cast of Democratic presidential candidates could winnow quickly by the beginning of February.
Party officials embraced the change, though New Hampshire Democrats joined several likely presidential candidates and former President Clinton in opposing the move.
"It's an opportunity for the candidates to speak in a broader way to Democrats across the country," said Alexis M. Herman, co-chairman of the DNC's rules committee that drafted the change. "It will be a plus for the candidates and I think they will take advantage of it."
Here's the new schedule:
* Iowa's caucuses remain in their leadoff position Jan. 14.
* Nevada would follow with its own caucuses Jan. 19.
* New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary would be Jan. 22.
* South Carolina would hold its primary Jan. 29.
Driving the decision to alter the schedule was a long-held worry within the party that Iowa and New Hampshire, which are predominantly white, were not representative of the country's population and key Democratic constituencies. Blacks and Hispanics have complained they haven't had an adequate voice in the early contests.
In choosing to squeeze Nevada caucuses between Iowa's Jan. 14 caucus and New Hampshire's Jan. 22 primary, party leaders kept in mind the state's large Hispanic population as well as its heavy labor union presence.
South Carolina, with its large black population, could hold its primary as early as Jan. 29.
But the primary calendar may not be final.
New Hampshire objected loudly to the lineup and has threatened to leapfrog over the other contests to retain its pre-eminent role.
"The DNC did not give New Hampshire its primary, and it is not taking it away," New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch said.
Secretary of State William Gardner, also a Democrat, emphasized again Saturday that it will be his office, not Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who picks the state's primary date.
"That's going to be based on state law, and it will be a date that honors the tradition," Gardner said after the DNC action. "It appears that he's in the driver's seat taking the Democratic National Committee on a collision course with the New Hampshire tradition."
Gardner, who has said he will decide next year when to schedule his state's primary, also said the plan to punish candidates who campaign in New Hampshire was an affront to a state with a long history of promoting greater participation in the political process.
"It's pretty insulting and disrespectful to the potential candidates and to the people of the state that they're being threatened," said Gardner.
Eager to avoid such a rebellion, Democrats also adopted sanctions to penalize presidential candidates who campaign in states that cut in line by denying them delegates from those contests.
But party officials acknowledged the effort was a gamble. Candidates eager to curry favor with Democrats in the early states could simply ignore the sanctions, particularly if the states jumping ahead are small and have few delegates to offer.
"Will the DNC enforce the rules?" asked Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer. "If New Hampshire doesn't follow the rules, then nobody should have to follow the rules. This is just the first step, we're not going to know the final calendar probably until November of '07."
Brewer said he agreed the schedule needed change, but argued the new lineup ignored the populous and union heavy industrial rust belt.
"Unless we have a candidate who can win in the industrial states, we can't win the presidency," he said.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who led efforts to move his state earlier in the voting, said: "This will be an enormous undertaking, but our state party is up to the challenge."
And South Carolina Democratic Chairman Joe Erwin praised the move, saying: "There's great regional diversity in four events strung out over a period of a couple weeks."
Democrats rejected a proposal that would have boosted the number of convention delegates for states that don't leapfrog into an early position.
Opponents complain that adding contests in Nevada and South Carolina crowds the early stages of the nomination process and the party's nominee could be determined by the beginning of February, before most states even get a chance to vote.
Other Democrats agreed the schedule needed change, but argued the selection of Nevada and South Carolina ignored the populous and union heavy industrial rust belt.
"Unless we have a candidate who can win in the industrial states, we can't win the presidency," said Mark Brewer, the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.
Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, said the proposed schedule would make Iowa's influence even more disproportionate.
"If there was a big stretch between the caucuses and New Hampshire, you have time to recover from a stumble and, if you do well, you have time to show some real weaknesses further down the road," he said.
On the Net:
Democratic National Committee: http://www.democrats.org/