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.
"A NH Primary on or around December 11th would encourage the Presidential candidates and their campaigns to spend intensive, quality time here for all of November into the first week or two of December. We could ask for nothing better for democracy than having some concentrated time with the candidates -- face to face, eye to eye, one-on-one, New Hampshire-style," he wrote earlier this week.
It's impossible to know whether Splaine is out ahead of Gardner's thinking or is in fact channeling Gardner. At times they clearly echo each other, as when Splaine, in his blog item touting Dec. 11, says that an earlier date might allow a candidate who did poorly to regroup ("No state, whether Iowa or New Hampshire or any other, should be able to by itself render the knock-out punch to a candidate"). Gardner made several similar comments, including: "Certainly the process should not end here. And we don't want it to end here. This is just the beginning."
A December primary might shock a lot of candidates and their staffers, as well as journalists, all of whom have been tromping around the country with the presumption that the actual voting will begin next year. The balloting has seemed a long way off -- but may actually be less than two months away.
The uncertain date of the primary has befuddled not only the campaigns and the news media but also the hotels and restaurants and all the other supporting players in what has become a quadrennial political circus. Gardner said he will announce his decision soon after the Nov. 2 close of the filing period for presidential candidates. He said the state will need only about two weeks to print and distribute ballots. They don't have to have dates on them, he said.
The belief earlier this year had been that Iowa would hold its caucuses on Jan. 14, followed by the Nevada caucuses Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 22. But in recent months that calendar has been scrambled as officials and party leaders in Michigan and Florida, covetous of a early role in the nominating process, voted to hold primaries in January. Gardner has been watching the maneuvering with a keen eye.
"I'm watching Michigan. I'm watching Nevada," he said.
During the drive back from Keene, through a rainstorm that darkened the rolling hills of southwestern New Hampshire, Gardner and Splaine chewed over all the possible options.
The law tells Gardner to put New Hampshire at least a week before any "similar election." This week, four Democrats pulled their names from the Michigan ballot, saying they would honor a pledge to campaign only in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina before the rush of primaries on Feb. 5. Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd kept their names on the ballot in Michigan but vowed not to campaign there. But the Republicans are competing and that's all that matters, Gardner said. New Hampshire would be no later than Jan. 8.
Iowa is another issue. Gardner said he'd like to choose "a date that would allow Iowa to have its eight days." Here's where it gets really complicated.
If New Hampshire goes Jan. 8, Iowa couldn't plausibly hold caucuses on New Year's Eve. There is talk that Iowa might hold caucuses on Jan. 3 or Jan. 5, but that would encroach dramatically on the time for candidates to decamp to New Hampshire and make the Granite State the center of the political cosmos.
South Carolina Republicans, meanwhile, moved their primary to Jan. 19, which might uproot Nevada, Gardner said. Meanwhile, he said, there's Wyoming.
Yes: Wyoming has some kind of delegate-selection caucus-primary thing scheduled for Jan. 5, Gardner said. He's not sure what to think of that.
He talked about the news coverage out of Iowa, and Howard Dean's "scream," and how quickly Dean's campaign tanked. He indicated that if the votes are scheduled too closely, there's not enough time for people to digest what's happening.
"Is it right for me to put that into the equation?" he asked aloud.
There remain more questions than answers.
As Bill Gardner sat in the back seat of his Volvo, peering ahead at the rain-slicked country road and the enveloping darkness, he continued to talk of dates, and states, and his many options.
And only he knew what he was really thinking.