Bill solidifies Gardner as boss of N.H. primary

CONCORD -- A bill before the state Legislature is designed to cement the secretary of state's authority to schedule New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary before the Nevada caucuses in 2008 -- if he chooses.

State law requires Secretary of State Bill Gardner to schedule the primary on a Tuesday a week -- or more -- before any "similar election."

The "or more" part allows Gardner to jump as far ahead as he wishes, but in the past he has not challenged Iowa's caucuses, which have long been before the New Hampshire primary.

Last summer, after complaints that both states were unrepresentative of the nation's racial and ethnic diversity, the Democratic National Committee voted to squeeze Nevada between them, then schedule South Carolina's primary a week behind New Hampshire's before opening up the calendar to all comers.

Now Gardner must decide whether the Nevada caucuses constitute a "similar election" under state law. In the past he has had the implicit authority to do that, but Rep. Jim Splaine, a Portsmouth Democrat, wants to make that explicit for Gardner and future secretaries of state.

"I don't want to see any other (future) secretary of state intimidated ... or any chance of a lawsuit, that some national committee or other state could say, 'The secretary of state of New Hampshire is not interpreting the statute the way that they should,'" Splaine told The Associated Press.

Gardner has not told anyone what he will do about Nevada -- not even Splaine, who has worked closely with him over three decades on legislation to preserve New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status.

All bets are off this time around. Gardner, who is very loading of the calendar and its effect on candidates and campaigns, could jump ahead of both Nevada and Iowa.

Typically, he sets the date in late fall, after other states have set their calendars. Gardner could announce the date as little as three weeks ahead of time, thanks to the state's small size and well-organized election officials, Splaine said.

Meanwhile, both well-known and dark horse candidates have been visiting the state for months, hiring staff, wooing volunteers and meeting voters in the expectation that New Hampshire will be an outsized player in the nomination process once again.