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Editorial on Iowa-New Hampshire--NYTimes 1/4/08

January 4, 2008
Let It Start Now

The candidates have spent a year and tens of millions of dollars in Iowa, and Thursday night the first actual voters offered their first assessments. Some candidates and their strategists were hoping the caucuses and the New Hampshire primary next week would settle the race, weeding out the contenders for the two major parties' presidential nominations. Watching the campaign in cold, snowy and mostly empty Iowa, we were hoping for something else — that this year's Iowa-New Hampshire rush to judgment will be the last.

For all of Thursday night's drama, the results in Iowa did not preclude a race going into New Hampshire, and, we hope, beyond — to South Carolina, Florida and the cluster of primaries on Feb. 5. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton, but she's got plenty of money left, and John Edwards got a boost. Mike Huckabee's win was unlikely to deter Mitt Romney or the Republicans who did not contest Iowa: John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani.

Keeping this race alive so significant numbers of Americans in more populated states can participate would begin to make up for the ludicrous spectacle of the past year, which enriched the television networks and the political consultants (some $300 million already spent) far more than it enriched the political dialogue. We hope both parties will wake up and end the undemocratic system in which the choice of a new president rests far too heavily on nonbinding votes in January by voters that don't necessarily represent the rest of the country.

We don't question the enthusiasm or the commitment of the people of Iowa and New Hampshire. But Iowa, where a huge turnout amounts to less than 10 percent of the population, is about 92 percent white, more rural and older than the rest of the nation. New Hampshire has a non-Hispanic white population of about 95 percent. Iowa's Democrats are more liberal and more protectionist than the nation's Democrats. Its Republicans are more conservative, and religiously driven, than the nation's Republicans. And yet, The Boston Globe reported that Mr. Romney spent $7 million on ads in Iowa. That's nearly $4 per registered voter.

We believe the time has long passed for both parties to not only break the Iowa-New Hampshire habit but also end the damaging race to be third, with states pushing their primaries closer and closer to New Year's Day.

Instead, the country should adopt a more sensible and more representative system of regional primaries, in which states are divided into regional groups that vote on a designated day. The honor of going first would rotate year to year among the regions. That would give a far broader range of American voters a say in this vitally important choice.

Make no mistake, there are choices to be made in this first election in many, many years in which both parties' nominations are being contested. Most of the Republican contenders (with the exception, most of the time, of Senator John McCain) offer the same kind of politics of division that has so polarized this nation over the last seven years. It is a politics that thrives on religious and social intolerance and fear.

Mr. Huckabee, the Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, cloaks himself in affability and Christianity. But he bullied Mr. Romney into pleading with religious conservatives to accept his Mormon faith as Christian enough for a Republican nominee and, after professing charity, has recently become a scourge of undocumented immigrants.

Fear often appears to be the only plank on which Mr. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, is standing, when you can tell where he is standing at all. Mr. Giuliani, who parlayed the 9/11 tragedy into a lucrative business and now speaks, bizarrely, of the "9/11 generation," has switched his views a dizzying number of times — on immigration, on abortion, on New York.

Almost as dizzying, in fact, as the pirouettes executed by Mr. Romney, who wants American voters to forget his record as governor of Massachusetts — where he endorsed gay marriage and reproductive choice — and believe what he says now that he wants to be president. Among Mr. Romney's tailored-for-the-campaign proposals is to double the size of the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which even President Bush knows must be closed.

All of the Republicans want to continue President Bush's disaster of a war in Iraq, including Mr. McCain. He, however, has taken a courageous stand for immigration reform, which seemed to doom his candidacy last year, and is a strong advocate of the need to confront global warming and to stop the abuse of prisoners in Mr. Bush's system of secret prisons.

The Democrats are united in their opposition to the war, but none have spelled out a persuasive plan for getting American troops home without setting off a wider conflagration.

Senator Obama generates enormous excitement with his youth, and his promises of change — even if it's not entirely clear what he intends to change or how. Senator Clinton, meanwhile, wavers between wanting to be seen as ready to serve as president because of her eight years in the White House with her husband — and trying to satisfy voters' yearnings for new ideas and new ways.

Mr. Edwards has a strong populist message, but it sounds a bit odd coming from a former tort lawyer and hedge fund executive who ran as a completely different person in 2004. One of his ads features an out-of-work Maytag employee who said Mr. Edwards promised his 7-year-old son: "I'm going to keep fighting for your daddy's job." We're still waiting for Mr. Edwards to explain how he, or any politician, can turn back the tide of economics and globalization. We'd prefer if he explained how to make it work for all Americans.

None of this has led us to a choice in the nominating contests, never mind for the presidency. The majority of Americans are in the same position. That's why they should be allowed to see and hear more of these candidates, and not have to settle for the judgments of the people of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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