South Carolina has set its primary date for Jan. 21, likely pushing up the GOP presidential race to start shortly after New Year’s or even earlier.

The Palmetto State is the first of the four states holding early contests to select its date. Now all eyes are on New Hampshire, whose decision on its primary date will determine when Iowa and Nevada will set their caucuses.

“Today, South Carolina’s Republican primary restores order,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said Monday morning.

That’s partially true.

Possible 2012 presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shakes hands with people at Farm Boys restaurant during a visit, Saturday May, 21, 2011 in Chapin, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain) (Mary Ann Chastain/AP)

South Carolina, by setting its primary for Jan. 21 rather than a later date — Jan. 24 and 28 were both tossed around — will likely spark the other contests to go earlier than some had hoped. It chose that date after Florida on Friday set its primary for Jan. 31, forcing the early states to announce they would hold their contests earlier than planned in February.

“I didn’t want to put the candidates in a position of choosing between us and Florida,” Connelly said when asked why his state didn’t choose a later date.

From there, things get complicated.

New Hampshire state law says its primary must be held on a Tuesday at least seven days prior to any similar contest, but the Nevada Republican Party’s rules say it must set it’s caucuses for four days after New Hampshire’s primary.

There had been some question about whether the Nevada caucuses qualified as a “similar contest,” but the New Hampshire secretary of state said Monday that it does, and that New Hampshire would have to go at least seven days before Nevada.

“We are going to consider Nevada a similar event,” said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan.

Nevada, meanwhile, stuck by its party rules, even as some suggest they could change them more easily than New Hampshire could change its law.

“Nevada caucus rules state that our caucus will be the Saturday following New Hampshire’s primary,” Nevada GOP Executive Director David Gallagher told The Fix. “So whatever Tuesday New Hampshire decides, we’ll be four days later. “

New Hampshire’s primary has traditionally been on a Tuesday, which means it could now fall on Jan. 3 or 10.

Iowa state law, meanwhile, holds its caucuses must be held at least eight days before the next contest. So if New Hampshire set its date for Jan.10, Iowa could go Jan. 2. If New Hampshire chooses Jan. 3, Iowa’s contest would have to be held in 2011 to comply with state law.

It should be noted here that, despite that law, Iowa went just five days before New Hampshire in 2008. So these things are malleable.

Indeed, the primary calendar is shaping up much like it did in 2008, with Florida going on the last Tuesday in January and South Carolina going 10 days before that.

From there, though, it’s anybody’s guess.

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