WASHINGTON - As many as four big states - California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey - are likely to move up their 2008 presidential primaries to early February, further upending an already unsettled nominating process and forcing candidates of both parties to rethink their campaign strategies, party officials said yesterday.
The changes, which seem all but certain to be enacted by state legislatures, mean that candidates face the prospect of going immediately from an ordered series of early contests in relatively small states in January to a single-day, coast-to-coast battlefield in February, encompassing some of the most expensive advertising markets in the nation.
The changes would appear to benefit well-financed and already familiar candidates and diminish the prospects of those with less money and name recognition.
Associates of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said that should either of them stumble early on, the party primaries in California and New Jersey - two states that would seem particularly hospitable to them - could offer an expensive but welcome firewall.
Several party analysts suggested that having such delegate-rich states at stake Feb. 5 could persuade candidates who might otherwise step out after a defeat in Iowa or New Hampshire to press on in hopes of a dramatic recovery on the new Super Tuesday.
The developments mark the latest upheaval in a political calendar already in turmoil. The Democratic Party has voted to allow Nevada and South Carolina to move their nominating contests into the narrow time period at the beginning of the process that once was limited to just Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary.
New Hampshire officials, protective of their first-in-the-nation primary status, have responded by saying they would schedule their primary as early as it takes, even before Jan. 1, to protect the state's traditional role. No one seems to know where the scramble for influence among the states will end.
"This is completely out of control," said William F. Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of state and leader of a National Association of Secretaries of State committee that is monitoring this movement and trying to push back against it.
The developments suggest that the national parties are losing any control they have had over the calendar by which they will nominate presidential candidates in 2008. California, New Jersey, Florida and Illinois are most likely to move their primaries early, probably to Feb. 5, joining at least five smaller states that had already scheduled primaries for that day.