IMAGE: N.H. Secretary of State William Gardner
Jim Cole  /  AP
By the time New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner schedules the state's presidential primary, presidential hopefuls will have campaigned in the state for many months and, in some cases, two or more years.
updated 10/10/2007 11:10:00 AM ET 2007-10-10T15:10:00

The political heat on William Gardner - the single official with the most control over the presidential primary calendar - has never been hotter.

Gardner's temperature, however, remains cool.

Gardner is the 58-year-old New Hampshire secretary of state, a man who loves history and has been the jealous keeper of his state's first-in-the-nation primary for over three decades.

National party leaders are doing a slow burn waiting for Gardner to schedule a date for the 2008 primary. So are other states' officials who will need to adjust accordingly.

Gardner knows they're waiting, but won't make his move until he's ready. He has said New Hampshire's date can be no later than Jan. 8, but he doesn't give them a clue as to whether he will do the unthinkable - move his state's contest into this year.

Pressure starts to mount
In New Hampshire, where pride in the state's first-primary status is close to a religion, there has been widespread support for Gardner. But even some Granite State political leaders are beginning to express concern.

"If he makes the wrong decision, that's the end of the primary," says Kathy Sullivan, who stepped down this spring as state Democratic chairwoman. "If he makes the right decision, great, we're good for another four years."

In an interview with The Associated Press, the soft-spoken Gardner said he couldn't say when he'll set the date since some other states haven't made their decisions. Gardner, by state law, must make New Hampshire first.

Not everyone is buying that.

"I think he's being terribly irresponsible to be waiting so long to do what he's going to do. I think he's just trying to be cute," says Don Fowler, a former national Democratic chairman. "I don't see why he's waiting. He knows what his law is, and if he sets his date and someone trumps him, he can change again."

Said former RNC chairman Rich Bond: "New Hampshire law and perennial sucking up to New Hampshire by the presidential candidates means that he has a free hand in determining when New Hampshire's primary occurs in the process."

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Living with himself
Gardner, who sees his mission as fending off other states every four years, has never changed a primary date after setting it and doesn't intend to with this primary, his ninth.

The state law requires him to pick a date a week before any "similar election," giving him, by design, enormous flexibility compared with states where parties or legislators set dates and rules. He didn't schedule the 1996 primary - for Feb. 20 - until Dec. 20, 1995.

Gardner has felt pressure in other years, most recently in 2000, when he shocked the political world by scheduling the primary a week earlier than anyone expected, just one day after Iowa's already scheduled leadoff presidential caucuses. He soon found himself at a meeting with then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and a half-dozen other officials.

"One by one, they told me why it was the wrong date. The last one to speak was the governor," he recalled.

Gardner wouldn't budge, and recalls explaining why: If he gave in and it was wrong, "I have to live with myself and know I did not have the guts to do what I thought was right."

Iowa moved its date.

Gardner is a New Hampshire native who earned a degree in zoology - at the University of Hampshire in 1970 - an interest kindled by his grandfather's chickens. He was living in Manchester, where he still lives, finishing a master's degree in history when he was elected to New Hampshire's 400-member House two years later.

Protecting the American Dream
In 1976, the Republican-dominated Legislature elected Gardner, then 28, secretary of state. The first Democrat to hold the office in 50 years, he has won re-election every two years since with support from both parties.

His two passions in life are history and making sure that, at least in New Hampshire, the presidential candidates with the most fame or money don't squeeze out the unknowns. He cites Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who got more support than any other candidate in the Iowa caucuses except undecided, won an upset in New Hampshire and went on to win the presidency in 1976.

To Gardner, the primary is about giving anyone who pays the $1,000 filing fee a chance to connect with voters.

"It keeps the dream alive that anyone can grow up here (in the United States) and be president," Gardner said.

With the first votes in the 2008 nominating contests only a few months away - if that - many want Gardner to stop dreaming and act. That feeling is especially strong in Iowa, which can't make a firm commitment on the dates for its caucuses - traditionally the first nominating contests - until Gardner acts.

"The bottom line is, I don't know what the benefit is for him not to make a decision. No matter what happens, Iowa is going to be the first in the nation, period," said Ray Hoffman, Iowa's state Republican chairman. "You just prolong the agony."

Bipartisan support
Few in New Hampshire are pressuring Gardner.

"I trust him completely," said Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat.

"My only conversation with him is, 'You decide when you feel is the right time. Let us know the date,'" said state Democratic Chairman Raymond Buckley. "If we're seated at the convention, fine. If we're not, fine," he said, a reference to possible party penalties.

And it's not just Democrats. Charlie Arlinghaus, a former state Republican executive director, calls Gardner uniquely qualified for this high-stakes game of chicken with other states.

"He's very pleasant. He's conversational, but he's inscrutable," said Arlinghaus, head of a conservative think tank. "If you try to pump him for information, it's like talking to a tree."

But even in New Hampshire, patience and trust have their limits. Sullivan, the former Democratic chairwoman, recalls being caught off-guard in August when South Carolina's GOP chairman, with Gardner at his side, moved the South Carolina Republican primary two weeks earlier.

"It was a big surprise to everyone I had spoken to," Sullivan said.

And Sullivan is mortified by the possibility that Gardner will schedule the primary for December. "To me, that would be the death knell for New Hampshire going first" after 2008 because the state's officials would appear as "pretty arrogant people who only care about New Hampshire."

Tom Rath, a former Republican National Committeeman and state GOP chairman, also opposes voting in December.

"Whatever we do," he said, "we need to demonstrate we're acting in the best interest of everyone, not just New Hampshire."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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