Bill Gardner is a modest man with an awesome power: the ability to set the date of the nation's earliest presidential primary.
In 31 years as New Hampshire's secretary of state, Gardner has not hesitated to upset the best-laid plans of other states or national political parties by moving up the date - and he's poised to do it again in 2008.
The Democratic National Committee wants to squeeze Nevada between Iowa's leadoff caucuses on Jan. 14 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 22, but state law requires Gardner to hold the primary on a Tuesday a week or more before any "similar election."
Even if Gardner decides the Nevada caucuses don't meet that definition, he can set the primary as early as he wants, thanks to the "or more" clause.
In past election cycles, Gardner has announced the date as late as December, after other states have set their calendars. In 2008, he is widely expected to leapfrog six days ahead of Iowa, which would be Jan. 8, but no one knows for sure.
"His office can do an election in three weeks, as long as they have the ballot prepared. No other state can come close," said Democratic state Rep. Jim Splaine, who sponsored laws giving Gardner his power. "That's the threat that they have to worry about."
Whatever his decision, it will stem from his sense of history and his passionate conviction that the state's tradition of citizen involvement in government gives candidates with little money or national recognition a chance, while requiring those with early visibility to answer voters' questions at unscripted events.
"It's not that we're smarter or we're better," Gardner said in a recent interview. "It's just some of the things that have happened here that make it different and unique and special."
Those things, as he sees it, include keeping government close to the people, beginning with New Hampshire's first constitution. There are 400 state representatives today, one for every 3,089 people. Like the governor and 24 senators, they serve two-year terms.
New Hampshire birthright
Nearly four centuries after it started, direct government endures in town and school district meetings, where residents decide budgets and elect members of governing boards and myriad advisory bodies. Of those who haven't held office, nearly everyone in the state has a relative or neighbor who has.
As a result, residents consider it their birthright to meet and question candidates for public office, Gardner said. Some spend countless hours volunteering on presidential primary campaigns. Others open their homes, inviting friends and neighbors - and, with the help of the national media, the rest of the country - to meet the contenders.
Such "retail politicking" benefits the entire country, Gardner argues.
"People in other states say, 'We can replicate what you do.' What they can't replicate is the unique political culture here," Gardner said.
The state also helped to democratize presidential elections by proposing that states send delegates to choose candidates at the fledgling Democratic Party's 1832 convention - the origin of the modern nominating convention. Previously, the candidates were chosen by congressmen in Washington.
Open and inclusive primary
A century ago, when reformers pushed to have voters instead of party bosses choose nominees, New Hampshire was one of the first states to hold primary elections. Since 1920, it has held the earliest state presidential primary, even as other states handed the job back to the parties.
The primary also is open to anyone, Gardner said, in contrast to caucus states, where the parties decide who can run.
The state has same-day voter registration, and independents - 42 percent of the electorate, at last count - can vote in either primary.
That promotes high turnout: In a state of about 1.3 million people, 80 percent of 855,723 registered voters cast ballots in 2004.
"We're fighting privilege," Gardner said. "That's the theme here, that there's a place left in the country that is open and inclusive. Anyone can get on the ballot, even if you're indigent."
To Gardner, history is destiny, or should be. Not surprisingly, others disagree. Last year, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan led the Democratic Party's effort to schedule early nominating contests in states with more racial and ethnic diversity than Iowa and New Hampshire. He was only partly successful, in part because of Gardner's unique authority.
"New Hampshire seems to think they have a God-given right to have the lion's share of attention from the presidential candidates," Levin complained last summer.
Gardner and others say the result has been greater front-loading of the nominating calendar for 2008 than ever before.
"If we end up with a one-day national primary or series of events ... it's going to all be a matter of fundraising, and it's only going to be those people with money to give who will go to the fundraisers," he warns.
For that reason, Splaine hopes Gardner will move New Hampshire ahead of Nevada. But whatever he does, "In Gardner we trust," Splaine said.