Five of the nine Democratic presidential candidates dropped out of the Jan. 13 Washington, D.C., primary late last week, weakening the importance of the District’s first-in-the-nation contest.

Gen. Wesley Clark, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.) sent letters to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics withdrawing their names from the ballot.

The city’s political leaders had hoped that holding the nation’s first primary would draw attention to the District’s lack of congressional representation. Now, with more than half of the Democratic candidates not participating, the media it was supposed to attract may also be conspicuously absent.

The primary had a tenuous existence from its inception. Since Democratic National Committee rules prohibit primaries from taking place before traditional openers in Iowa and New Hampshire, the District was forced to make the Jan. 13 vote non-binding. A bill that D.C. Councilman Jack Evans said he plans to introduce could force all five candidates back onto the ballot, making the primary binding.

The District’s delegates for the Democratic nominating convention will be chosen at a later date. The DNC has objected to the early primary since it was signed into law by Mayor Anthony Williams (D) last March.

“Two specific [DNC] rules compel me to make this difficult decision,” Edwards wrote in his letter, according to Bill O’Field, public information officer for the D.C. BOEE. O’Field said the other candidates all cited similar concerns with party laws that prohibit their involvement in any “beauty pageant,” or in any caucus or primary before those in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Sharon Gang, spokeswoman for Williams, said the Mayor “feels that the five candidates actually insulted the voters of the District of Columbia.” While pointing out that Williams has not endorsed any of the Democratic candidates, Gang said the five’s withdrawal could “certainly affect his thinking.”

David Sawyer (COL ’04), board member of Hoyas for Clark, said that Clark’s decision does not impact his organization. Hoyas for Clark has been encouraging students to register to vote in their home states, where Sawyer feels they will have a larger impact, and not in the District. Members of the group are travelling to New Hampshire this weekend to campaign for Clark.

The four candidates still on the ballot are former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and former senator Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.). Unlike most states, where candidates have to file papers to participate in elections, the D.C. city council last month voted to automatically place all nine of the Democrats on the ballot. The remaining four candidates have until Friday to opt out of the primary.

“Dean has a huge grassroots movement in the D.C. area,” Mike Griffin (COL ’05), co-founder of Georgetown for Dean, said. “Their dropping out is a way to save face.”

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