Lawmakers in Michigan are set to disrupt a delicate balance surrounding the presidential nominating calendar, with a vote likely this week that would place the state's primary on Jan. 15 or even earlier -- in the middle of a window that had been set aside for four early-voting states.
Michigan's move is expected to prompt at least Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to move their nominating contests even earlier in January -- setting off a chaotic chain reaction that squeeze the Iowa caucuses into by far the earliest date in their history.
The shifting calendar is complicating the campaigns of all the presidential candidates, who are trying to strategize about how to win what will be the earliest primaries and caucuses in history -- even as more large states play major roles and states try to leapfrog each other in the process.
The chaos could hasten the end of the traditional system whereby the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are followed by a blizzard of voting in other states.
"It's a meltdown," said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's campaign in 2000 and now helps the Democratic National Committee try to determine the voting calendar.
"It's tough for the candidates and the campaigns to figure out how to deploy resources," Brazile said. "They have to figure out how to secure enough delegates to win. And now all of these states are shuffling dates, triggering all sorts of alarm bells, and we could have voters making their decisions in December 2007."
The shifting of dates has provoked a backlash. The Democratic and Republican parties are trying to reassert control of the primary calendars on behalf of their candidates, starting with a Democratic National Committee meeting Saturday that will consider ways to punish states that are violating the schedule set by the party.
Still, there's little the national parties can do to control when states hold primaries, since each state can hold such elections whenever it wants to. And even before Michigan moves its date, the calendar was shaken up by the maneuvering of dozens of states that want a bigger role earlier in the process.
More than 20 states -- including giant California, New York, and Texas -- are set to vote Feb. 5, setting up what's being called a "Super-Duper Tuesday" that will be a month earlier than the traditional "Super Tuesday" has been in previous years.
Florida lawmakers, meanwhile, moved the state's primary up to Jan. 29. Earlier this month, in part in response to Florida, the South Carolina Republican Party announced that it will hold its primary Jan. 19.
But New Hampshire state law requires its primary to be at least one week before any "similar contest," meaning the Granite State's planned date of Jan. 22 will have to be moved up until at least Jan. 12. If Michigan goes with Jan. 15, New Hampshire will vote no later than Jan. 8.
Iowa is the state getting squeezed the most. Democratic Iowa Gov. Chet Culver has said he wants to keep the caucuses in 2008 to avoid then being subsumed by the holidays, but fewer and fewer days remain in early January for the kick-off contests.
State parties have some leverage over when the states hold contests since they are technically held to elect delegates to their national conventions.
The DNC is using that influence to try to reclaim control of the calendar. On Saturday, the party's rules and bylaws committee will meet in Washington to review states' plans for the primaries -- and dole out punishment to states that are trying to jump the line.
Michigan's latest plan will not be considered Saturday, since the new primary date won't be enshrined into law in time. But the DNC panel is expected to rule that Florida's date violates party rules. The national party will likely threaten to strip the Sunshine State of more than half of its delegates -- and could also prevent candidates who campaign in Florida from receiving any of the state's delegates.
Democratic Party officials say they will do their best to preserve the calendar they developed that gives special, early treatment to Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina -- states that were chosen after a yearlong process where many other states applied for early-voting status.
"We want to preserve the integrity of the process. Everybody got a chance to participate in it, and those who chose to participate did so," Tina Flournoy, an assistant to president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the DNC's rules and bylaws panel. "We didn't sit around a room on our own and make these decisions. We really took our time to develop a process."
The DNC is trying to convince Florida to make its primary nonbinding and instead choose convention delegates some other way -- by mail-in votes, state convention, or county-level caucuses, for instance.
Brazile said party officials want to Florida to choose delegates Feb. 5 or later -- thus preserving earlier dates for only the four states designated by the DNC. That way, she said, officials may be able to convince Michigan to scrap its plan for an early date.
If something isn't done, she said, many voters will find the chaotic, early voting to be an excuse to stay home.
"We have a bad case of states' envy," Brazile said. "And it's the voters who will be impacted. You'll see a revolt on your hands like you've never seen before."