The muddled 2008 presidential calendar gained some clarity yesterday - on the Democratic side - as the party's major candidates agreed not to campaign in any state that defied party rules by voting earlier than allowed.
Their collective action was a blow to Florida and Michigan, two states likely to be important in the 2008 election, which sought to enhance their clout in the nominating process as well.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the front-runner in national polls, followed Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in pledging to abide by the calendar set by the Democratic National Committee last summer.
The rules allow four states - Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina - the right to vote in January.
The four "need to be first because in these states ideas count, not just money," Edwards said in a written statement. "This tried-and-true nominating system is the only way for voters to judge the field based on the quality of the candidate, not the depth of their war chest."
Hours later, after Obama took the pledge, Clinton's campaign chief issued a statement citing the four states' "unique and special role in the nominating process" and said the senator, too, would "adhere to the DNC approved calendar."
Three candidates running farther back in the pack - New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware - said Friday that they would honor the pledge, shortly after the challenge was issued in a letter co-signed by Democratic leaders in the four early states.
To campaign or not to campaign has been a vexing question facing presidential hopefuls from both parties, as they have watched the election landscape shift with every change in the political calendar.
The Democratic and Republican parties, trying to bring order to chaos, have threatened to strip delegates from Florida, Michigan and any other states that vote outside a prescribed window. That could greatly diminish those states' clout because the nominating fight is all about winning delegates to next summer's national political conventions. Take away delegates, and there's less incentive for candidates to invest time and resources.
The Republicans set their nominating guidelines at their 2004 presidential convention. The GOP gave states a window between Feb. 5 and July 28, 2008, to hold their primaries and caucuses. Any state in violation - and there are several at risk, including New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida - could lose 50 percent or more of their delegates to the nominating convention a year from now in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
States have until Tuesday to submit their schedules to the Republican National Committee, which will review the calendar and issue sanctions, if any, by the end of the year. (Iowa and Nevada are exempt because they are holding nonbinding caucuses, not primaries, in January.)
For GOP candidates, there is good reason to campaign in the early states, even if they are sanctioned.
"There are still delegates that are in play, and there's momentum and electability, which are invaluable," said Carl Forti, political director for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a leading GOP contender. "We'll play the calendar start to finish."
The situation is more complicated for Democrats.
Florida, the state that proved pivotal in the 2000 presidential campaign, is again a source of much of the upheaval. Ignoring the rule that put January off limits, state legislators moved Florida's primary up to Jan. 29, pushing Florida past several other big states voting Feb. 5. Leaders of the national party responded last month by giving Florida 30 days to reconsider or have its delegates barred from the national convention next August in Denver.
"The party had to send a strong message to Florida and the other states," said Donna Brazile, a veteran campaign strategist and member of the Democratic National Committee, the party's governing body. "We have a system that is totally out of control."
Despite that warning, Michigan lawmakers have also moved to jump the queue, voting last week to advance the state's election to Jan. 15 .
Karen Thurman, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, criticized the candidates' pledge, calling it "a pact to ignore tens of millions of diverse Americans by a selfish, four-state alliance of party insiders."
But pledge or no, the Democratic candidates will not completely ignore states facing sanction. Eight of them are expected to show up next Sunday at the University of Miami for the first Spanish-language debate of the campaign. They may very well be asked when - and whether - they plan to come again.
Mark Z. Barabak writes for the Los Angeles Times.