Maybe April 1 would be good for the 2006 primaries


IF DEMOCRATS try to rewrite next year's election calendar, they will cloak their self-serving maneuver in the rhetoric of good government: People will have more time to consider their choices, people want more time to find out where candidates stand on the issues, etc. The real reasons, of course, are purely political.

Democrats believe an earlier party primary and a longer general election season may be useful in a year when intraparty competition could leave hard feelings among Democratic pols and voters. The party's winners could spend themselves dry in the primaries and need a longer general election season to replenish the larder.

But they should be careful to avoid the excesses that led them out of the State House in 2002. Democrats assumed they could do whatever they wanted because they were the majority in the two legislative houses and still held what they thought was a comfortable majority of registered voters.

They also thought - many of them - that they could win the governor's mansion with a candidate (albeit a member of the Kennedy family) who had never won a race for anything other than lieutenant governor. They're about to do something similar.

They are proposing to change the election rules in the middle of the game, waving off the possibility of angry backlash. Why?

They're doing it because they can. They think they have the votes to pass a primary-changing bill and the votes to override a veto.

They're doing it because they know they will face unprecedented challenges from historically anemic yet potentially resurgent Republicans. The GOP is essentially a two-candidate party statewide: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. (Quick: Name another prominent Republican who can be competitive against the Democrats statewide.)

But in some largely suburban and rural parts of the state, Republicans could be far more threatening to Democrats in the state House and Senate.

They're doing it because they may be outspent by Republicans at every level. Record-breaking sums are likely to be at play against Democrats up and down the ballot - with $20 million to $30 million for the governor and Mr. Steele.

They might believe they will have a better chance of exposing Mr. Steele's lack of legislative experience in a longer campaign for U.S. Senate. In a shorter period, skilled operatives could more easily limit his public exposure and leave him less vulnerable to damaging missteps.

They might think the voter will forget how high-handed they've been.

All of this could backfire, of course, as it may have done for Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist after he tried to change the rules for filibusters in the U.S. Senate. Americans - and Marylanders - believe in fair play. Changing the rules in the middle of the game isn't fair - even if there are votes authorizing it. Can you say power play?

A Democratic Party official told me the Republicans' opposition to changing the date was nothing more than politics. Certainly so. But everything about changing the date is equally or more political.

Republicans responded to the renewal of this idea with cries of "Bring it on!" The Republican motto seems to be, "Leave No Worn-out Braggadocio Behind!"

It's a laughable carnival of excess on both sides, but there's an air of exhaustion around it and we're not even into the election year.

A ranking Democrat with a wary (and zany) view of these calculations said maybe the General Assembly would change the primary date to Christmas Eve of this year. Maybe the election can be like a fund-raiser, a charitable event in which voters and deep-pocketed, bankrolling leaders on both sides will deliver a wrapped toy after they cast their votes.

Another Democrat said the calendar controversy is just more evidence of dysfunction in Annapolis - something challengers from both parties will run against.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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