Chief correspondent

The Republican presidential candidates broke camp here Wednesday morning after their rowdy debate the night before and left behind some unfinished business: Will Nevada or New Hampshire blink in their increasingly nasty dispute over the 2012 primary and caucus calendar?

Several Republican candidates have vowed not to participate in Nevada’s GOP caucuses, now set for Jan. 14. They have declared solidarity with New Hampshire, whose secretary of state, William Gardner, has been demanding that Nevada move its caucuses or his state’s first-in-the-nation primary could be pushed into this coming December.

Gardner now faces a most difficult decision. He could set his primary on Jan. 10, which would show a retreat from a position he outlined just a week ago. Or he could upend the entire calendar by moving New Hampshire’s primary to sometime the month before. For Gardner and his state, a strategic retreat, however unpalatable, would do far less damage to the future of the primary there than would a leap into December.

Neither state started this fight. Florida bears that responsibility. The Republican National Committee tried to establish an orderly flow to the caucuses and primaries that will determine the party’s presidential nominee. After considerable effort, officials set up a calendar that would have started a month later than in 2008 (February rather than January), and that was designed to reward states that held their contests later rather than earlier.

It was a fool’s errand. What RNC officials learned — as did Democratic National Committee officials four years ago — is that state pride and competition trump whatever threats or penalties the national parties can impose. Everyone wants an early opportunity to influence the nomination’s outcome, and nobody fears the consequences of running askew of the rules.

So it was Florida that started the dominoes falling by moving its primary to the last week in January. Florida only wanted to be the fifth state to hold a contest, which may not seem like an undue objective, given its place in past nomination battles. But by leapfrogging that far forward, the Sunshine State guaranteed the spectacle now playing out.

History and tradition give Iowa and New Hampshire the coveted opening slots in the calendar: Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, followed by the Granite State’s storied primary. Two other states also have been given exemptions to hold their contests ahead of the rest: South Carolina, whose influence on the outcome of the Republican nomination has often eclipsed Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s, and more recently Nevada, which was moved forward largely by the Democrats who wanted a Western state with labor and Latino influence to help round out their opening contests.

Once Florida moved its date, the four states with the authority to go early started to move as well. South Carolina set its primary for Jan. 21. Nevada picked Jan. 14 for its caucuses. Iowa this week set its caucuses for Jan. 3.

That has left New Hampshire with a dilemma. State law says not only that the New Hampshire primary must be the first primary in the nation but also that it should be seven days ahead of any similar contest. To Gardner, the person with sole authority to name the date of New Hampshire’s primary, that does not leave enough time for a comfortable gap between Iowa and New Hampshire (traditionally eight days but only five in 2008) and the required seven days between its primary and Nevada’s caucuses.

A week ago, Gardner issued a statement outlining his objections to the newest calendar. “If Nevada does not adjust its caucus date to a later time, I cannot rule out the possibility of a December primary,” he wrote. “We cannot allow the political process to squeeze us into a date that wedges us by just a few days between two major caucus states. Our primary will have little meaning if states crowd into holding their events just hours after our polls have closed.”

He said New Hampshire could hold its primary as early as Dec. 6 or Dec. 13. “We will respond as we need to in order to honor New Hampshire’s tradition, and to keep our primary relevant,” he warned. “Not to do so would allow us to lose an important element of American democracy forever. New Hampshire will not let that happen.”

The conflict has escalated in the two states. Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius called Gardner arrogant and said he displayed “a comically inflated sense of the Granite State’s importance in mind-bogglingly equal measure.” But most of the GOP presidential candidates have sided with New Hampshire, perhaps on the assumption that Mitt Romney, who won Nevada in 2008, has a significant advantage in that state.

Among those who have not agreed to boycott Nevada is Romney, who is currently leading the polls in New Hampshire. The Union Leader in New Hampshire jumped on Romney, saying in an editorial that the former Massachusetts governor “is willing to sacrifice an institution beneficial to the republic (the New Hampshire primary) for his own political advantage.”

The Union Leader argued that Nevada’s move to Jan. 14 “weakens all 2012 candidates not named Romney and threatens all future New Hampshire primaries. Whether New Hampshire goes in December or in January with Nevada only a few days behind it, the tradition is broken, and other states will be emboldened to move in for the kill in 2016.”

New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status is an article of faith in the state. To voters, it is what binds the political establishment, Republicans and Democrats alike, together. Voters have long taken seriously the responsibility that comes with their favored early status, putting candidates through rigors that few other states can match.

Gardner is in a tough spot. His state has played a valuable role in presidential politics over the years, but his fear of Nevada’s move may be overstated. It is a caucus, not a primary. More important, perhaps, is the likelihood that, among the first five contests next year, Nevada will rank fifth in significance.

From New Hampshire’s perspective, the easy fix would be for Nevada to move its date from Jan. 14 to Jan. 17. But from the perspective of many others, including some in New Hampshire, the wiser move would be for Gardner to set the primary for Jan. 10 to foster some goodwill that will be needed to protect the state’s franchise in the future.

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