By Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden's bid to shake up the Democratic Party's presidential nominating contest has set off a battle with state officials, testing his political muscle and reshaping the contest to lead the United States.
The White House told Democratic officials on Thursday that Biden would like to see South Carolina, where a majority of Democrats are Black, to be the first state to hold presidential primary contests, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada one week later, then Georgia, and then Michigan.
The plan would mark the end of Iowa's long tenure as the Democrats' first nominating contest. It represents an effort to elevate the diverse, blue-collar constituencies that powered Biden's primary victory in 2020 after embarrassing defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But the plan, which is expected to be approved by a Democratic National Committee (DNC) panel meeting in Washington through Saturday, has already put the White House in conflict with state officials.
While the DNC has the right to determine the date and sequencing of the nomination calendar, the power to implement those changes is often shared between the local parties and state governments, including the Republican-controlled ones.
Democratic leaders in New Hampshire and Iowa quickly responded that they plan to ignore the DNC, follow state law and hold their nominations as planned. A New Hampshire law explicitly sets the state's primary date ahead of any DNC calendar.
"New Hampshire does have a statute, we do have a law, and we will not be breaking our law," said Joanne Dowdell, who is representing New Hampshire on the DNC panel that is meeting to adopt the new calendar.
"Any lawyer in the room or around the table would agree that it is not in the best interest of this body to even suggest that we do that."
In Nevada, Democratic leaders said South Carolina's red-state status should be a disqualifier and said they are moving forward with their February contest as planned.
Republican leaders have ruled out making similar changes to their own nominating process.
Despite objections, a majority of the DNC rules panel on Friday signaled in opening statements in a Washington hotel ballroom that they would endorse Biden's plan, meaning it is likely to go through.
"So, the question becomes, what is the Democratic Party prepared to do to force states to comply?," Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
The DNC could strip states of their delegates, a group of nearly 5,000 nationwide who vote at the party's annual convention for the presidential nominee, scholars say. Or it could punish candidates for campaigning in those states, by prohibiting them from participating in national debates.
In Michigan, where Democrats control all levers of government, Biden's support was celebrated as the culmination of decades of work.
"In order to win the Presidency you must win the heartland. That's why Michigan is the best place to pick a President," said U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan.
Richard Pildes, a New York University law professor and expert in elections, said DNC has significant, though limited, power to implement a nominating process of their choosing. He said the members will certainly face in-fighting but it's unlikely the party will defy the recommendation of a sitting president who is poised to run for reelection.
"The DNC is very likely to follow his lead about what he wants in terms of things like the sequence of the primaries for political purposes," said Pildes. "The DNC wants to do everything it can do to maximize a sitting president's chance of reelection."
The changes could ease Biden's path to re-election by reshuffling the calendar to favor states that supported his nomination, in particular South Carolina. Biden has said he intends to seek re-election but not formally announced his bid.
Biden's 2020 presidential campaign was struggling until he won South Carolina and went on to gain the party's nomination.
Ahead of the 2020 re-election, Republicans canceled primaries in several states, in part to block a possible challenger to then-President Donald Trump.
"Joe Biden's political career was defined when South Carolina Democrats essentially handed him the Democratic Party nomination and the presidency," said Scala.
(Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)