N.H. primary authority affirmed
New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner is seen in his office at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. in this Dec. 9, 2005, file photo. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

CONCORD - The House has approved a bill that would give the secretary of state clear authority to schedule New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary before the Iowa and Nevada caucuses in 2008, if he wants to.

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

That 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 and schedule South Carolina's primary a week after New Hampshire's, before opening up the calendar.

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, wanted to make that explicit for Gardner and future secretaries of state.

House Bill 272 passed as part of the House's consent calendar Tuesday. Splaine has said he worries that other states or political parties disputing the primary date could sue over the secretary of state's interpretation of a "similar election."

Gardner has not told anyone what he plans to do, but he is widely expected to leapfrog ahead of Nevada and Iowa. Once he knows who will be on the ballot, he can announce the date as little as three weeks ahead of the primary.

The bill also makes the candidate filing period more flexible, so he can move it earlier than in the past.