Dems seek clout
State Democrats move up caucus, hoping to 'become relevant if necessary'
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With the Democratic presidential race front-loaded next year, Hawaii Democrats hope that moving their caucus ahead one month to Feb. 19 will give them a little more clout in the selection process.
But that date still puts Hawaii behind about 30 other states, including the Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5.
A win or second place in the early contests can give a candidate momentum and money-raising potential for the later races.
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This time in the presidential race, little Hawaii could possibly make a difference in weeding out candidates during the primary and caucus season.
The Hawaii Democratic Party hopes that by moving up its caucus by a month, the state could tip the scales on the national level.
But its caucus still will not be held until Feb. 19, behind about 30 states.
"It's conceivable that Hawaii can finally play a role in nominating a candidate for president," said Brian Schatz, one of the organizers of Hawaii for Obama. "There's a very real possibility that the vote at the national convention could be close, so every state's delegates are going to matter."
Supporters of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama believe his ties to Hawaii -- he was born in Honolulu and graduated from Punahou School -- could boost his candidacy.
But New York Sen. Hillary Clinton might be the favorite, in part because of the Clintons' prior visits to Hawaii and the state's strong Democratic base, said state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, spokeswoman for the Clinton campaign.
"We are ready to become relevant if necessary. There's just a huge number of states that are moving ahead of us right now," said Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua).
Hawaii falls in the third wave of state caucus and primary voting, with both Democratic and Republican nominees often decided early on after January votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and a few other select states.
It is unlikely that Hawaii will have much influence because it is such a Democratic-leaning state with a relatively late delegate selection, said University of Hawaii political science professor Ira Rohter.
"People are paying attention here, but I would argue that we're as much observers as anything else," Rohter said. "To say that the caucuses aren't important here doesn't mean the parties aren't mobilizing."
Hawaii's presidential nominations are handled through party caucuses rather than a statewide vote.
Between 4,000 and 8,000 registered Democrats are expected to turn out Feb. 19 to vote for presidential aspirants at their party's caucus, Schatz said. That vote helps determine the breakdown of Hawaii's presidential vote at the national convention, but final delegate selection will be held at the state convention May 24.
The Hawaii Democratic Party will send 29 delegates to the national convention. Most of them will be pledged to individual candidates, but the delegates also will include Hawaii's four Democratic members of Congress, who may vote as they please. Sen. Daniel Inouye is backing Clinton, and Rep. Neil Abercrombie has sided with Obama.
Besides Clinton and Obama, Democrats John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich also have some backing among Hawaii residents. Kucinich will visit the Big Island on Thursday.
Hawaii Republicans are rallying around Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Ron Paul, said state Republican Party Chairman Willes Lee.
"If ... the issue is decided by early February, then we will be as relevant as we are each presidential election here," Lee said. "The other scenario, which is looking more and more likely, is that it won't be decided in February, and consequently we'll be more relevant."
Republican caucuses in Hawaii will be held on the precinct and district level in the last week of January and the first week of February. Then delegates to the national convention will be named at the state convention May 18.
The Hawaii Republican Party is sending 20 delegates to the national convention who will be bound to their chosen candidates only through the first vote.