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States compete for early Democratic primary spot

NEW ORLEANS—Long before they look for a 2008 presidential nominee, Democrats are looking for the right voters.

Party leaders from several states told the Democratic National Committee on Thursday that their states should get a bigger voice in picking the next nominee because they have more diverse populations than the two largely white, homogenous states that now dominate the nomination battle—Iowa and New Hampshire.

"The swing states need to have a bigger influence in selecting the candidate," said Tom Vogel, the executive director of the West Virginia Democratic Party.

State by state, region by region, Democrats from around the country argued that only by listening more to their voters can the party win back the White House.

From the South, for example, top Democrats argued that presidential candidates would be stronger if they first had to find a way to appeal to both the region's many African-Americans and to culturally conservative whites.

"We cannot win the White House without winning electoral votes in the South," said Alabama state party chairman Joe Turnham.

From the Midwest, officials said the party first must find ways to better lock down the union members and ethnically diverse population of the industrial belt.

"If you ignore the industrial Midwest, there is a political price to pay," said Michigan party chairman Mark Brewer. "Ignore one-third of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency, that's a risk you take as a party."

And from the West and Southwest, state leaders argued that the party must find better ways to talk to their growing Hispanic and union populations.

"The future of the Democratic Party is in the West," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, in a videotaped presentation.

The Democratic National Committee will decide later this year which state or states will get a coveted voting slot between the day when Iowa holds the first precinct caucuses and when New Hampshire holds the first primary. Republicans haven't altered their calendar, leaving Iowa and New Hampshire first.

The first states to vote increasingly have make-or-break power over nominations, as their choices get magnified by media coverage and frequently are echoed in later-voting states.

South Carolina state party chairman Joe Erwin noted that 49 percent of voters in his state's 2004 Democratic primary were African-Americans. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., added that the small state includes several audiences that Democrats need to reach, including religious, rural and working-class voters and military retirees.

"South Carolina is a perfect laboratory to confront racial and ethnic issues, to confront faith issues," Clyburn said. "If you prove your mettle in South Carolina, you will be successful in the United States."

Turnham of Alabama said his state should have a greater say because it would force candidates to speak to the South, both to its African-Americans and to white, conservative Baptists. Winning Alabama would leave a Democrat "battle ready," he said.

Arizona officials noted that 40 percent of their state's population is either Hispanic or Native American and that union membership is growing.

"Arizona represents the changing face of America," added Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

"It's important for the Democratic Party to highlight a commitment to this growing diverse population."

Arkansas officials noted that their state forces candidates to engage in retail campaigning, often at colorful festivals, such as one that features toad races and another that makes candidates eat tomatoes.

They also noted with pride that the state is the home of Wal-Mart—a claim that might actually hurt its bid, as many Democrats and union members don't like the anti-union company.

Washington, D.C. party chairwoman Wanda Lockridge said the city was 60 percent African-American, 30 percent white, 7.9 percent Hispanic and 2.7 percent Asian-American. (Some respondents report more than one race.) She said it was more diverse than most states by race, sexual orientation and the percentage of government vs. private-sector workers.

Nevada officials boasted that their state was the fastest-growing, with large numbers of Hispanics and union members as well as a vibrant church community.

"Nevada is a perfect testing ground for a candidate, given its diversity," said state party chairwoman Adriana Martinez.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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