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Primary season is now 

Don't blink election season is here.

In past decades, the process of selecting the major parties' presidential candidates was a fairly lackadaisical affair, as one state after another welcomed the hopefuls to their coffee shops and cornfields and then held primaries or caucuses to judge them on their merits.

That trend has been changing for years as states have sought to increase their profiles, and boost their economies, by moving their primary dates closer to the front of the line. But this year, the schedule will be extreme, with the bulk of the primary race squeezed into what will be essentially a one-month blitz that kicks off Jan. 3 with the Iowa caucuses.

Within a month, on the morning after California's Feb. 5 primary, it's possible the presidential candidates for both parties will have been chosen.

It's a dramatically faster pace than in the past, and experts say it's likely to change the tenor of the campaigns, possibly for the better, as candidates may resist the conventional political wisdom to go negative in the weeks leading up to an important contest. It's also likely to make California a key state for the first time in years.

"With the holidays, New Years, Martin Luther King Day, and the Superbowl, a lot of stuff is competing for the public's attention this year," said Mark Buchman, chairman of the SLO County Central Democratic Committee. "It's really incumbent for local organizations to try to heighten awareness of how important California is this year."

This year, New Hampshire will follow Iowa by just days, with its primary Jan. 8. A few others will fall over the coming weeks and then, in one massive day being unoriginally dubbed "Super-Duper Tuesday," 22 states including California and New York will hold their primaries on Feb. 5.

Buchman's group is hoping to generate excitement for the primaries with an "early primary" event on Jan. 12. The event will feature a straw poll, have speakers representing all the major candidates, and allow people to register or change their registrations.

Based on turnout at the Democrats' SLO Farmers' Market booth, he said he expects a big crowd.

SLO County has already seen an unusual number of presidential candidates. Top-tier GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani appeared at a Santa Margarita fundraiser in July. Dennis Kucinich, running for the Democratic presidential nomination, made a stop in San Luis Obispo in September. And Green candidate Jared Ball took his hip-hop-centered message of social justice to, of all places, the SLO Senior Center in December.

Of course, there's no guarantee the winner will be decided after California, especially among the more spread-out Republican field. Delegate rich states including Ohio and Texas will hold their primaries in early March.

Another effect of the early primary season will likely be to render the nominating conventions even more irrelevant than they have been in recent years.

The Democrats hold their conventions in Denver in late August. Republicans start theirs days later in St. Paul.

For those who are independent but still want to vote in the presidential primary, they'd better lean left. California has what's called a "modified closed primary system," which means that unaffiliated voters--those who register as "decline to state"--can choose to vote in one of the major party's primaries, provided the party allows it. Republicans opted not to allow independents to take a ballot, while the Democrats are allowing it.

Alternatively, people who wish to vote for candidates of another political party can reregister so long as they do so 15 days before Election Day.

INFOBOX: Sleep late and you'll miss it

Here are the upcoming primaries and caucuses. In many cases, the major parties have voted to deprive states of delegates for moving up their primaries.

Jan. 3: Iowa

Jan. 5: Wyoming (R)

Jan. 8: New Hampshire

Jan. 15: Michigan

Jan. 19: South

            Carolina (R)

            Nevada

            South

            Carolina (D)

Jan. 26: Florida

Feb. 2: Maine

Feb. 5: Alabama

            Alaska

            Arizona

            Arkansas

            California

            Colorado

            Connecticut

            Delaware

            Georgia

            Illinois

            Massachusetts

            Minnesota

            Missouri

            Montana

            New Jersey

            New Mexico

            New York

            North Dakota

            Oklahoma

            Tennessee

            Utah

            West Virginia

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