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A December Primary in New Hampshire? It's His Call.

New Hampshire election chief Bill Gardner, left, and state Rep. Jim Splaine outside the State House in Concord. Gardner has discretion to set the state's primary date -- a decision with huge ramifications.
New Hampshire election chief Bill Gardner, left, and state Rep. Jim Splaine outside the State House in Concord. Gardner has discretion to set the state's primary date -- a decision with huge ramifications. (By Lori Duff For The Washington Post)

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

CONCORD, N.H. -- The New Hampshire primary, crowded by other wannabe primaries and caucuses, may be shifted from January to an unprecedented date in early December. It all depends on the calculations of one man.

"I have a lot of discretion," said Bill Gardner, the 16-term secretary of state of New Hampshire, who is invested with what amounts to dictatorial power to set the date under state law. "We are prepared, if it needs to be early December, it can be early December."

Or it may stick to a date in early January. Gardner is still playing coy, though increasingly less so, with his open hints about December.

In recent weeks, "What Is Bill Gardner Thinking?" has become the major political parlor game in presidential politics. He is, unfortunately, brilliantly obtuse. He has the gift of genial obfuscation. Exploring his thinking process is like trying to stab an olive with a plastic cocktail sword.

Ask him a direct question -- and The Post did just that this week over the course of seven hours and a long drive in Gardner's Volvo from Concord to Keene and back, with dinner in between -- and he'll answer with a series of sentence fragments, digressions, anecdotes and ambiguities. His elusiveness is strategic: He wants to keep all his options open.

The result is that professional political pundits scrutinize his words with Talmudic intensity. New Hampshire may be famously small-d democratic, a place where it seems as if every third person is in the state legislature, but Gardner is the state's answer to the chairman of the Federal Reserve: The political market can shudder from the impact of a single provocative verb.

One person who may know what Gardner is thinking is Jim Splaine, who was along for the ride to Keene and back. Splaine, 60, is a Democratic state legislator who wrote the 1975 law giving the secretary of state power to set the primary date. Splaine also wrote subsequent amendments extending that power. During the ride, Gardner gave interviews by cellphone from the back seat while the reporter drove and Splaine gave the lowdown on New Hampshire politics.

"I talk about the unpredictability of the date and the person setting it as our secret weapon," Splaine said.

Gardner sees it that way, too.

"Every time I answer, I limit," Gardner said. As in, limits his maneuverability.

"You're a coy guy," Splaine told him.

Splaine has been pushing the Dec. 11 date on a blog called Blue Hampshire.


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