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Under pressure, N.H. considers December primary

Thanksgiving leftovers might still be lingering in the fridge when New Hampshire voters go to the polls — a result of the cutthroat competition among states to hold early primaries.

Frustrated that Florida, Nevada, and South Carolina have moved their primaries into January, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner warned yesterday he may schedule the state’s primary for as early as Dec. 6, raising the prospect of voters streaming to the polls nearly a year before the general election.

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A December date would mark the earliest-ever Granite State primary and would set off a scramble among Republican candidates to recalibrate for a compressed campaign.

“Any Tuesday in December would be a possibility, but that’s one of them,’’ Gardner said, when asked about a Dec. 6 primary. “It’s not something I would do lightly. It would be done regrettably, but if it has to be done, we’re going to comply with our tradition and our state law.’’

New Hampshire law puts the state in a bit of a bind. Iowa is tentatively set to have its caucus Jan. 3, and Nevada is aiming for Jan. 14. New Hampshire by its own rules cannot schedule less than a week before another state. That leaves open Jan. 7, but that’s a Saturday. Gardner is reluctant to break from a Granite State tradition of voting on Tuesday.

Some New Hampshire Republicans expressed unhappiness yesterday at the possibility of a December primary. They warned the primary would be so early that its relevance would be diminished. Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, pointed out that major news or a revelation about a candidate could shift the race, well after New Hampshire voters have made their choices.

“In Bill Gardner I trust, and I think there’s near universal agreement in New Hampshire on that, in terms of his judgment,’’ Cullen said, praising Gardner for defending the New Hampshire primary since 1976 . “But we’d all be disappointed if that’s what it came to.’’

He said that, from 1916 until 1972, the New Hampshire held its primary in March. But the state has been moving its date up in recent years, trying to fend off challenges from rival states that have pushed up their primary dates to get more attention from the candidates. In 2008, the primary was Jan. 8.

This year, the battle for an early vote has been fierce. Florida has scheduled its primary for Jan. 31, and South Carolina has chosen Jan. 21. Nevada’s Jan. 14 vote is five days earlier than its 2008 nominating election.

If New Hampshire holds its primary in December, it would spark consideration of an earlier caucus in Iowa, said Drew Ivers, a member of the GOP Central Committee in that state.

But Ivers said Iowa Republicans, who met Thursday night to discuss caucus dates, expressed “a significant reluctance,’’ to hold their caucus in December, because they believe they can have more of an impact by balloting in the election year.

“If New Hampshire moves into December, that challenges their relevance,’’ Ivers said. “You are actually holding primaries not even in the year of the election. It’s like, wow, the general public and the media are going to say, this doesn’t seem quite right, to move it so early you’re actually in the previous year.’’

New Hampshire and other states that hold primaries before February automatically forfeit half of their delegates, under the rules of the Republican National Committee, which has been trying to impose discipline on the primary schedule.

The calendar wars have also sparked accusations of political chicanery.

Jon Huntsman’s campaign pointed to reports that Mitt Romney’s campaign pressured Nevada officials to move their caucus date earlier, to give Romney a bigger springboard into Florida.

“We moved the date for the good of Nevada, not the Romney campaign,’’ Robert List, a former Nevada governor and GOP national committeeman, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “But Romney’s people were pushing for us to move into January so that he could get some momentum.’’

Huntsman aides said that pressure created a domino effect, forcing New Hampshire to consider an early primary.

“It’s unfortunate that the Romney campaign feels it’s necessary to interfere in states’ elections,’’ said Michael Levoff, a spokesman for the former Utah governor, who has staked his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire. “Our only concern is that New Hampshire remains the first in the nation primary and that they are able to choose a date that is best for the people of the Granite State.’’

Romney’s camp sidestepped Huntsman’s charge.

“Governor Romney is firmly committed to preserving New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary and the critical role it plays in selecting our Republican nominee,’’ said Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesman.

“Governor Romney is also competing in every other nominating contest across the country - whenever they are scheduled,’’ Williams said. “It is up to each state to determine the date of their primary or caucus, and Governor Romney has consistently supported Nevada’s status as an early nominating contest that follows New Hampshire.’’

Aides to Ron Paul, the Texas congressman with a strong following in New Hampshire, had no qualms about December.

“Dr. Paul has a rock-solid base of support and has built the strongest organization in New Hampshire, so the precise date does not matter to our campaign,’’ said his campaign chairman, Jesse Benton. “All we care about is that New Hampshire remains the first primary in the nation.’’

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