Official: N.H. is still the key primary state

CONCORD -- The crush of candidates and early start to the 2008 presidential campaign has stirred fears that dark horses don't stand a chance, even in early voting states like New Hampshire.

But talk of the New Hampshire primary being diminished brought fresh reminders this week that the "Live Free or Die" state still has the power to upset the nominating calendar set by the national Democratic Party.

National Democrats want New Hampshire to vote Jan. 22, 2008, after caucuses in Iowa and Nevada and a week before South Carolina's primary.

But New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner hasn't set the date yet, and he reiterated Tuesday that he intends to uphold the state's first-in-the-nation tradition. He said he wants New Hampshire to remain a place where character and ideas count for more than money and endorsements, and where all Americans get to see how well the candidates perform at unscripted events.

"If there's one place in the country that can still happen, it's here," he said in an interview. "The value of the New Hampshire tradition has always been that it keeps the American dream alive, that any person's son or daughter can some day become president."

State law requires Gardner to schedule the primary at least a week before any "similar election."

Gardner has never challenged Iowa's caucuses, which predate the New Hampshire law, but he's not saying whether the Nevada caucuses will get a similar pass.

Instead, he's waiting to see what happens as other states jockey for positions near the front of the Democratic calendar and the Republicans decide their schedule. Gardner expects to set the primary date sometime in the fall. In previous cycles, he has waited as late as December to ensure New Hampshire's primacy.

"We've had to come up with different ways every four years to preserve the tradition," he said during a talk Tuesday night in Atkinson. "We'll deal with (Nevada) as well."

Democrats moved up Nevada and South Carolina last August, based on criticism that New Hampshire and Iowa do not reflect the nation's racial, ethnic and economic diversity.

Since then, nearly a dozen states have moved their nominating contests to Feb. 5, a week after South Carolina. Other states are considering moving their primaries up to that date or even earlier.

Gov. John Lynch, who fought to keep Iowa and New Hampshire first, said the Democratic National Committee's calendar changes have backfired.

"I thought it was a poor decision, nor do I think the decision addressed the challenge they put forth for themselves ... to lessen the front-loading of the process," he said Wednesday.

Some analysts think the pressure to organize in more than a dozen states simultaneously will winnow out all but the best-known and best-funded candidates long before the first votes.

Gardner disagrees. As long as New Hampshire holds first place, obscure candidates will get an opportunity to connect with voters and presumed front-runners will be put to the test, he said.

"New Hampshire provides that stage, that opportunity," he said. "Those candidates who come in as imperial candidates with an entourage find out quickly that's not the way it works here."

State Democratic Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan said history bears him out. She noted that Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, had little money and almost no national organization when he began campaigning in New Hampshire four years ago, but became the front-runner for a time.

"Almost nobody had heard of him, yet he gained traction in New Hampshire, started getting support around the country and began raising tons of money," she said.

Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, who has less money and recognition than this year's presumed Democratic front-runners, is hoping they're right. Dodd visited the state for the first time as a declared candidate last weekend, meeting with people in living rooms, breakfasts and on campus, and adviser Maura Keefe said he plans more such trips.

"You still can run and win with a grassroots campaign in New Hampshire," Keefe said. "For us, this is the type of campaign we must do and that we want to do."

No matter what Gardner decides, Sullivan thinks front-loading is making the early states more relevant than ever.

"The candidates are going to have to focus on the first four states to get momentum," she said. "And 46 states are going to have a very difficult time getting candidates to show up other than on TV or in a fly-by at the airport."

State Republican Chairman Wayne Semprini believes New Hampshire still provides the best barometer of public sentiment, because Iowa and Nevada hold caucuses of party delegates instead of direct voting.

"The more I read and hear about the caucuses, the more confused I get as to how they actually operate. But there's nothing at all confusing about candidates visiting in people's homes, visiting in diners and parish houses, and having tough questions asked of them and then people actually voting," he said.