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Once Again, Price Takes Reins of Primary Panel

It’s been nearly 25 years since Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) helped change how the Democratic Party chooses its presidential candidate. Now, the former political science professor is back, chairing a new panel that will consider changes to the party’s frontloaded primary calendar.

Last month, the Democratic National Committee tapped Price and former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman to chair its 2008 Nominating Calendar Commission. The 39-member panel will spend the next year reviewing the Democratic primary schedule. It will then recommend changes to ensure that the nomination process is fair and produces the strongest possible candidate.

Price knows this role well. In 1981, the nine-term House Member served as staff director to the DNC’s Commission on Presidential Nomination, also known as the Hunt Commission for its chairman, then-North Carolina Gov. James Hunt (D). It was one of the party’s few efforts — and also its most recent — to formally review how delegates are selected and candidates nominated.

In a recent interview, Price said the goal of the commission is two-fold: to examine the pacing of the primaries, and to review which states should hold early primaries and how big an impact those contests should play in determining the nominee.

The Democratic lawmaker said it is clear that the calendar is weighted too heavily on the front end, making many states’ primaries irrelevant. The question, he said, is what can be done to change or improve it.

“We know it is frontloaded,” said Price, who used to teach political science at Duke University. “The question is, is that something we want to encourage or something we want to change? I go into this with my own views, but also [with] an acute awareness that this is a matter of debate and discussion within the party.”

Price said two schools of thought exist within the party. One, he said, holds that the party benefits from settling on a nominee early in the process because it avoids a long, divisive campaign season. The other camp holds that early-primary states hold too much power, which risks creating a “rush to judgment.”

“I understand those arguments and I will hear them out,” he said.

That unbiased approach is exactly why outgoing DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe selected Price for the job, several Democratic sources said.

“Being a Democrat is not the reason why Price is here,” said one Democratic campaign operative. “He’s a professorial person. He understands mechanics of the process and knows the historical context. He’s a unique figure in the party.”

The commission will meet early this year, and it has until Dec. 31 to issue a report and recommendations. Price said the commission will hold hearings across the country and solicit advice from all Democratic constituencies as well as voters and lawmakers.

Price said that whatever suggestions the commission comes up with, convincing the states to act upon them could be a challenge. He noted that any modifications to the primary calendar would likely be left to state party organizations or possibly state legislatures — meaning that one of the commission’s key jobs may be to come up with incentives to get states to move forward.

The North Carolina lawmaker suggested that possible carrots and sticks could include refusing to seat delegates from recalcitrant states or adding bonus delegates to states that agree to hold primaries later in the process.

Price said he recognizes that the commission and the party cannot act in a vacuum, noting that the party also must remain mindful of the GOP calendar to ensure that its nominee concludes the primary schedule in a strong position.

“We have to understand that the Republicans can do their own thing, and we have to think about what would put us at an advantage or disadvantage,” he said.

The commission was established after a divisive and unpredictable 2004 primary process that produced a series of changing frontrunners. Ultimately, however, the earliest primary victor — Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) — became the nominee.

Price said that Members of Congress will play an important role in the commission’s deliberations. Four lawmakers — Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Reps. Hilda Solis (Calif.) and Kendrick Meek (Fla.) — also sit with Price on the commission.

As always, Democratic candidates lobbied Members of Congress — who count as “super delegates” at the party convention — for endorsements during the 2004 primary season. Price, for his part, backed fellow North Carolinian John Edwards, who ultimately joined Kerry as the vice presidential nominee.

Price hedged when asked about another presidential bid by Edwards, saying it is up to the former Senator to make that call on 2008.

“He certainly made us proud,” Price said. “Right now they are wrestling with [wife Elizabeth Edwards’ fight against breast cancer] and there’s a long time for them to make their decision. They have lots of friends and supporters in this state.”

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