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Early campaign states fade into background role

Gov. Chris Christie spoke during a town hall meeting at the Louden Fire Department.Darren McCollester/Getty Images

If the four early presidential nomination states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- want to keep their place on the calendar, they need to understand their new role.

These states don't pick presidents (Super Tuesday does that). These states don't winnow the field (national media debate hosts decide that with criteria for who makes the stage and how many questions they get). Potential candidates don't really "test the waters" in these states to see if they should run (sizing up potential donors does that). Even if Iowa or New Hampshire reject a candidate, that doesn't mean his or her campaign is over (the candidate's super PAC bank balance decides that).

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Instead, the new role of these early states is on full display this week by providing a scenic backdrop to a national media event that is also the contest for the next leader of the free world.

After all, even though each early state was awarded a debate, there is no longer a local debate moderator to provide local context.

At the Tuesday night debate on the Las Vegas Strip (good television background, good hotels and restaurants for journalists and really close to the airport), the debate moderators will be two people from CNN and a nationally syndicated talk radio host from California. Surely, the highly controversial proposals for Yucca Mountain will be in their briefing books as a "local issue to consider."

After the Democratic National Committee dumped WMUR-TV as a co-sponsor for Saturday night's Democratic debate in Manchester, sources say there are no plans to include a New Hampshire moderator. They'll just skip that part. (The New Hampshire Union Leader is still listed as part of the event, but that is in name only.) Given only one debate so far this year had a local moderator -- the CBS News debate in Des Moines -- ABC is following precedent.

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One big reason for this: The national political parties have taken over the debate process. They have lost much of their clout and power over the last few elections, so the parties are clinging on to this new role, including selecting the debate location. These debates could be in Las Vegas or Des Moines or Manchester . . . or, as they also have been this year, Boulder, Cleveland and Milwaukee (all cities in swing states).

These debates are awarded now in essentially the same way the NFL decides which town will host the Super Bowl or the NCAA picks the location of the Final Four each year.

If early states activists want to keep getting good tickets to the national show, they must make sure they are willing to be interviewed in front of a picturesque "real America" background. They must make sure cell services is available around the state. Lastly, it would be really great if they voted in a way that created a plot twist.

After all, plot twists help with ratings, and isn't that what this is all about?


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.