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'Dems keep N.H. first, but all's not well'

Last modified: 8/21/2010 12:00:00 AM
The Democratic National Committee yesterday unanimously approved a presidential primary calendar that maintains New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary, but schedules the Nevada caucuses four days later.

State Democratic Party leaders yesterday praised the new schedule. But don't expect Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who sets the date for the primary, to agree to it.

State law requires New Hampshire to schedule its primary seven days before any similar election - though an exception has always been made for the Iowa caucuses. 'We are going to have our seven days,' Gardner said.

Gardner said the seven-day window between New Hampshire and the next state is necessary to give the impact of the New Hampshire primary time to sink in, and to ensure that candidates are able to spend time campaigning in New Hampshire - a state that allows all candidates a chance on the ballot.

'To me, seven days is the most important of all because this is truly to give the little guy a chance to keep the dream alive that anyone can grow up to be president,' Gardner said.

The passage of the DNC schedule is likely to mean yet another showdown over the timing of the primary - something Gardner is no stranger to. Ask Gardner about challenges to New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary tradition, and he will talk about the battles of 1971, 1984 and 2008. And observers of the process have no doubt that the primary will conform with New Hampshire law. After all, the primary's staunchest defender is the one who sets its date.

'Bill Gardner took an oath of office to uphold the laws of New Hampshire, and I have absolutely no doubt he'll do that,' said Terry Shumaker, a Democratic activist who has been involved with the primary since 1968. 'We've been through this before.'

The DNC schedule would open the window for most states to hold their contests beginning the first Tuesday in March. Exceptions would be made for the Iowa caucus, to be held Feb. 6, the New Hampshire primary, on Feb. 14, the Nevada caucus, Feb. 18, and the South Carolina primary, Feb. 28.

Speaking from the Democratic National Committee meeting in St. Louis, state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley and Democratic National Commiteewoman Kathy Sullivan said the schedule addressed the concerns of New Hampshire residents coming out of the last election cycle. 'It basically does everything that people have wanted,' Sullivan said. 'It establishes a February window, pushes all other states into March, and establishes the principle of New Hampshire being the first primary state.'

In 2008, Iowa caucused Jan. 3 and New Hampshire voted Jan. 8, followed by Michigan on Jan. 15 and Nevada and South Carolina on Jan. 19.

Sullivan said that meant candidates had little time to campaign in New Hampshire after the Iowa caucus. (Iowa state law requires its caucus to be held eight days before New Hampshire's primary, though that did not happen in 2008.) In addition, Christmastime became campaign season.

'The primary was right on top of the holiday season, with canvassers knocking on doors, phones ringing, the TV covered with ads,' Buckley said. 'This calendar moves the New Hampshire primary six weeks after the holidays. It's a great victory for the people of New Hampshire, the candidates and campaigns, and the media.'

Buckley said the new calendar also follows years of struggle to have both national parties supporting New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. 'It is a very historic moment,' Buckley said.

Sullivan said the DNC calendar does conform with New Hampshire law. The statute, she said, talks about a 'similar election.' Nevada has a caucus, not a primary. Sullivan said the critical thing for her was to have time for candidates to campaign between New Hampshire and Iowa, and to have a clear window between New Hampshire and any other primary state.

But Gardner said New Hampshire law requires New Hampshire's primary to go before any other primary or caucus. Iowa is an exception because it was grandfathered in.

Gardner said this is not the first time Nevada has been talked about as an early state. A DNC commission in 2005, which Shumaker and now-Sen. Jeanne Shaheen served on, first named Nevada and South Carolina as early states, with Nevada going before New Hampshire. Shumaker and Shaheen were the only commission members to oppose that plan. Shumaker said they did not oppose adding two more early states, but they opposed putting Nevada before New Hampshire. (Ultimately, Florida and Michigan tried to move ahead in the calendar, the 2008 primaries threatened to spill into 2007 and the DNC plan fell apart.)

Nevada first tried to precede New Hampshire's primary in 1969. The previous election, Democrat Eugene McCarthy had challenged incumbent president Lyndon Johnson and shocked the country with his success in the New Hampshire primary, losing the popular vote but winning more delegates than the president. Days later, Johnson dropped out of the race.

'People across the country were stunned,' Gardner said. 'They asked, 'Why can't we have this?' '

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - at the time a member of the Nevada Legislature - helped pass a bill in Nevada letting Nevada vote a week before New Hampshire. Luckily for New Hampshire, the Nevada governor was a friend of then-New Hampshire Gov. Walter Peterson. The Nevada governor vetoed the bill, Gardner said, asking, 'Why would we sign into law something that would create ill will among the states?'

Yesterday, Nevada Democrats were noncommittal about whether they would be open to working out an alternative schedule with New Hampshire. 'The Democratic and Republican parties are working to establish a calendar that meets all state and party requirements, and our intent will be to protect Nevada's role in the early presidential calendar,' said Phoebe Sweet, communications director for the Nevada State Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire Democrats were hopeful that the calendar would be resolved, with plenty of time remaining before the election. 'The good news is there's a lot more maneuvering room in February than there is in January for this to be worked out,' Shumaker said. Shumaker said the most important features of the new calendar were that it pushed the contests back a month and set a sequence that includes New Hampshire as the first primary, with only Iowa preceding it.

'There's time to fine tune this and get it right,' Shumaker said. 'A lot of people are tired of every cycle we have this battle again. The country's facing a lot of difficult problems, and arguing about primary challenges should not get in the way of addressing the issues.'

The Republican National Committee already approved a calendar that allows all states to begin voting the first Tuesday in March, with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina voting in February. The Republican calendar allows the four states to work together to pick dates.

'The rules the Republicans adopted give maximum flexibility to our secretary of state,' said Republican Party Chairman John Sununu. 'We reviewed it with Bill Gardner before the final votes, and he was very, very comfortable with what we had before us at the RNC meeting.'

Sununu said the Democrats and Republicans will have their primaries on the day set by Gardner, and he is not concerned that Gardner will be swayed by the DNC rules. 'Bill has shown a capacity to deal even with the bad rules people try to put into place,' Sununu said.

Gardner said he is disappointed the DNC did not give New Hampshire the seven days required by state law, when it could easily have done so. 'We have not had a primary in compliance with the DNC for over a quarter of a century,' Gardner said. 'I thought this time would be different.'

When asked how he will respond, Gardner noted his long record of maintaining the first primary, in accordance with state law. 'When you give in once, when you appease once, you lose your longstanding tradition and you've got nothing,' Gardner said.


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