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Should we do this every four years?

Voters who shattered turnout records this month said they were excited to have a presidential primary where they had some say in picking the eventual nominee.

Many had the rare chance to meet the Democratic candidates and their families personally.

Sen. Barack Obama talked to voters at a Durham coffee house, where he served them pound cake. They swarmed him outside a downtown Raleigh restaurant, grasping for his hand and taking pictures.

Voters met Chelsea Clinton at a Raleigh pizza joint. Former President Clinton worked small towns, shaking hands and promoting his wife. Michelle Obama drew a crowd of 5,700 to Reynolds Coliseum. The state Democratic Party drew about 10 times more people than usual to its annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, held May 2 before the primary, with both Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on the bill.

"I am 62," wrote Carol Phillips of Wake Forest via e-mail to The News & Observer. "I have voted all my life. The 2008 North Carolina primary was the first in which my vote for national candidates counted. Clinton came to Wake Forest, the first time ever a presidential candidate came to the town."

This primary season, North Carolina was almost like New Hampshire without the ice. As they trekked to the polls over the last few weeks, North Carolina voters said they were delighted their decisions mattered.

Perhaps it could happen more often.

Last year, a small rumble started in the state Senate to move the presidential primary to February. The proposal died before it took two steps, but its main supporter, Republican Sen. Andrew Brock of Mocksville, said the interest in voting this year is the best argument for changing the schedule.

Voters would be engaged by candidates showering attention on North Carolina, because they more than likely would still be fighting for the nomination, Brock said. A major benefit would be getting presidential candidates to respond to state concerns, such as jobs lost through mill closings, he said, the way candidates do in early-state campaigns.

"That happens all the time in New Hampshire and Iowa, never in North Carolina," Brock said.

Some have objected to holding separate presidential and state primaries because of the expense. It costs about $5 million to hold a primary, according to the State Board of Elections. Holding all primaries on the same day could solve the cost problem.

Sen. Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat, enjoyed the primary season, calling it "hugely interesting," but he said a schedule change alone cannot make it happen again in 2012.

"Wherever you are, events will sometimes make you beside the point and sometimes make you very much the point," he said. "I don't see any particular reason to change it."

Disappointment in '88

Sometimes, careful orchestration fails to yield the intended result. In 1988, North Carolina was one of a dozen Southern states that held Democratic primaries on a Super Tuesday. The aim was to try to pick a candidate that would do well in the South. Al Gore, then a U.S. senator from Tennessee, won North Carolina. Michael Dukakis won Texas and Florida and ended up winning the nomination.

State Democratic Party chairman Jerry Meek said the attention has had mixed results. On one hand, voter registration is up. On the downside, it's been harder for candidates lower on the ballot to get noticed, he said.

When it's time to decide a primary date, no one knows how the competition will unfold, Meek said, and if the state had voted in the thick of the primary season, North Carolina would not have received the candidates' focused attention.

"We would have been one of a number of states that had rushed toward the front," Meek said.

Linda Daves, the state Republican Party chairwoman, said she would not oppose moving the primary up. Daves said she was impressed by voters' interest in the contests, which can be repeated when people think their votes matter.

"I think this entire explosion of new voters has been really phenomenal," she said.

There are other options. Wayne Goodwin, a Democrat running for state insurance commissioner, said he prefers a system of rotating regional primaries, where groups of states hold primaries on the same day with a schedule set out years in advance.

Ed Turlington, a Democrat who worked on the a national Democratic Party commission that made recommendations for this year's primary schedule, said he would like to see an earlier presidential primary in North Carolina.

"It increases the chance in a typical year we would have more influence," he said. "One of the lessons from this year is that every cycle is different. There will be years when being late will be helpful. Probably the typical pattern will be earlier is better."

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