WASHINGTON -- Once again, six months before another presidential campaign year begins, the candidates have already beaten a well-worn path to the states that will hold the earliest delegate-selecting caucuses and primaries.
On the Republican side particularly, the presidential hopefuls have been to Iowa, the first caucus state, and New Hampshire, the first primary state, so many times that with somewhat more liberal registration requirements they'd almost be eligible to vote there. Even President Clinton, expected as of now to have the Democratic nomination without a challenge, has paid visits to both states.
It's not just Iowa and New Hampshire either. With a host of other other states having moved forward the dates of their caucuses and primaries into a five-week period after the Iowa kickoff next February, the candidates have felt obliged to touch base in these others as well.
All this movement has attracted considerable press coverage -- for Republican front-runner Bob Dole especially, and to lesser degrees for those trailing him. As usual, those who aren't getting as much coverage as others complain that it's unfair.
It is often suggested that because voters aren't paying much attention -- and most aren't -- this early campaigning has little bearing on the eventual outcome. But try telling that to such past early campaigners as George Romney in 1967, Jimmy Carter in 1975 and Gary Hart in 1983 and 1987. For various reasons, getting out there early had a profound effect on why Carter did, and the others didn't, become president.
All these men slogged through Iowa and/or New Hampshire early and only Carter survived, operating on a dicey formula of wearing down the voters with his presence and his pitch without wearing out his welcome. The others self-destructed along the way, revealing flaws that were probably better uncovered for the country's sake before they got into the White House.
Romney suffered from politically fatal fuzziness repeatedly demonstrated on the early campaign trail, and graphically illustrated in his unfortunate self-characterization in a 1967 radio interview that he had been "brainwashed."
Hart in 1983 followed the Carter early-start formula in Iowa and ran a surprising second to Walter Mondale in the 1984 caucuses, emerging as his chief challenger. In May of 1987, however, his early start included the indiscreet socializing with Donna Rice that drove him out of the 1988 presidential race, eight months before the election year began.
In a simpler time, candidates waited until the year actually started before taking to the campaign trail. In 1960, John F. Kennedy didn't announce his candidacy until January, and most other candidates did the same. The late start was possible because there were many fewer state primaries to be contested then. In 1959, Kennedy had quietly traveled around the country visiting Democratic bosses and state party leaders who could deliver their delegations. In 1960, he had contested primaries only in West Virginia and Wisconsin.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater also ran in only a handful of primaries before gaining the Republican nomination. And in 1968, the same was true for Richard Nixon. On the Democratic side that year, Hubert Humphrey was nominated without entering any of the six primaries contested by either Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy, or both. It was not until 1976, when 30 states had primaries in some form, that pre-election-year campaigning became imperative.
By then, the post-Watergate campaign finance laws dictated an early start. They limited contributions and provided federal matching subsidies only for funds raised starting in the calendar year preceding the election year. That condition guaranteed that candidates would start running early, to attract press coverage -- and campaign contributions.
Since then, presidential campaigns have been at least two-year affairs. At the risk of public boredom, the early starts have been an opportunity for lesser-known candidates to make themselves and their ideas known -- and for voters to discover strengths or, more often, weaknesses in ample time to consider them in casting their ballots.