State becomes primary leader

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The passage of a bill making Tennessee one of the first states in the next Presidential Preference Primary will allow state citizens to begin casting their ballots in the U.S. Presidential primaries Jan. 21, 2004, with primary election day falling on February 10.
   The state's presidential primary -- beginning 20 days before any election -- would begin January 21, allowing Tennessee voters to cast ballots roughly a week before the famed New Hampshire primary.
   The March primary date was originally set in 1988 to create "Super Tuesday", a group of Southern states holding the Presidential primary on the same day to increase influence on the nomination. Since then, states have leapfrogged one another moving their primary dates earlier.
   "We used to be one of the last states," said Tracy Harris, county administrator of elections. "By the time Tennessee had their primary with our 11 electoral votes, it was already decided because of all the other states."
   Tennessee's Presidential Primary will be held Feb. 10, 2003 shortly following the New Hampshire primary and Iowa Caucus. Both houses of the General Assembly passed the bill moving the presidential primary from the second Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in February. The decision makes Tennessee only the second Southern primary. Virginia is the only other state with a confirmed primary on Feb. 10.
   Harris said election administrators from all 95 state counties would be briefed about the primary legislation and other new laws pertaining to election at a seminar next week. She and other election commission officials will be registering citizens to vote at the Covered Bridge Festival today.
   The state's Democratic Party is taking a particular interest in the new primary date. Tennessee will likely be a targeted state for a break out by a growing list of Democratic candidates that currently does not have a leading contender in Tennessee or nationally. That makes early primary states, especially those close to the major New Hampshire primary and Iowa Caucus, crucial opportunities for Democratic contenders to break away from their competitors.
   "The mission of the Tennessee Democratic Party is to elect Democrats," said Randy Button, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. "This is a chance for Tennessee Democrats to take the lead in selecting the next Democratic presidential nominee and the next Democratic president of the United States."
   The executive committee of a county's political party has until Nov. 11, 2003 to call for primary elections nominating candidates for any local office appearing on the August county general election ballot. The county primary would then be held on Feb. 10.
   The nine-member Democratic field includes Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., Bob Graham of Florida, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joe Lieberman of Rhode Island and Congressmen Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich. Former Illinois senator Carol Mosely Braun and Rev. Al Sharpton are also candidates for the Democratic nomination.
   Federal and state general elections will be held Nov. 2, 2004.