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New Hampshire intends to keep unique primary status

If it seems sometimes like the voting in the presidential primaries is coming quicker than Christmas, well, it just might.

It's a long shot, but the man who single-handedly decides when New Hampshire holds its first-in-the-nation primary, Secretary of State William M. Gardner, says it's possible that he will set that date for December. A decision could come today.

"We're going to maintain our tradition" of holding the first presidential primary, right after the Iowa caucuses, just as New Hampshire has done for decades, Gardner said.

And if another state tries to get in New Hampshire's way, Gardner will respond. Asked about the possibility of a December primary, he said: "I can't rule that out."

Most likely, though, New Hampshire will vote on Jan. 8, five days after the Iowa caucuses, in the earliest start to the presidential primary season ever. It's all because several other states, most notably Michigan, have tried to leapfrog New Hampshire to build their own political influence -- and because New Hampshire won't stand for it.

The result is a crazily consolidated primary season that will culminate Feb. 5, when two dozen states, including New York, could well decide both the Democratic and Republican nominations.

Campaign experts say the calendar favors the two New York-based front-runners: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican. Meanwhile, it strongly disfavors little-known challengers -- as well as citizens who would rather spend their holidays listening to carols instead of candidates.

For now, though, all eyes are on Gardner, the de facto keeper of the campaign calendar.

For weeks, he has been hosting the candidates as they register for the primary and spelling out the event's history for reporters from across the country.

And all the while, he has been playing coy about when New Hampshire will vote -- except to say that it has to be first.

"There's a reason for this," said Gardner, who has held his post for more than 30 years. "There's a unique political culture here."

Indeed, here in New Hampshire, voters actually seem to enjoy politics.

Several voters interviewed this week said they've seen all the major candidates in person at least once, and one claimed to have seen several of them as many as three times.

"People treat politicians a little differently here," said Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group, a polling firm in Manchester. "I think you want to test a candidate, and they get tested here."

What's more, to one voter after another, the New Hampshire primary is a point of pride.

"It's the same as watching the leaves turning," said Doris "Granny D" Haddock, 97, a legendary New Hampshire political activist who walked across the country to advocate campaign finance reform in 1999. "It's one of the things we do. We're not known for much of anything else."

It all started humbly enough, with New Hampshire scheduling primaries early in the 20th century to coincide with the state's annual town meeting days on the second Tuesday of March.

In 1972, other states began trying to encroach on New Hampshire's starting date, so the Granite State moved its primary earlier and earlier.

This year, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., led a push to get his state to vote earlier in the process, perhaps with a caucus the same day that New Hampshire votes. Like many others, he complains that New Hampshire and Iowa -- small states that by no means reflect America's diversity -- don't deserve the outsized influence that comes with their first-in-the-nation status.

"New Hampshire seems to think they have a God-given right to have the lion's share of attention from the presidential candidates," Levin grumbled.

In hopes of answering such concerns, the Democratic National Committee sanctioned an early Nevada caucus and an early South Carolina primary. But in Gardner's view, "that opened the floodgates."

States such as Michigan, which will now have its primary Jan. 15, and Florida, which will vote Jan. 29, scheduled their earliest primaries ever.

Those early-voting states run the risk of losing some of their delegates by ignoring national-party rules about when the campaign will start. Moreover, that early rush to vote created what's really a Super-Duper Tuesday on Feb. 5, when 24 states -- including California, Illinois and New York will hold primaries or caucuses.

That rush to the front will only make it more important for candidates to succeed in Iowa and New Hampshire, several political experts said.

"I don't think New Hampshire ever said it wanted to have the last word, yet paradoxically, that's what's happening," said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor who has written a book on the state's primary.

With the primary season so condensed, "it really doesn't leave a lot of room for an early stumble," Scala said. "If one of the candidates goes 0 for 2 in the first two contests, it will be the equivalent of tripping in the first 10 yards of a 100-yard dash."

Moreover, voters might just be sick of it all by then.

News wire services contributed to this report.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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