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Taking New Hampshire for granite

NBC's political director Chuck Todd evaluates the importance of the New Hampshire primary in this "frontloaded" election cycle.
/ Source: NBC News

It seems a week doesn’t go by without someone questioning whether the Hawkeye State of Iowa or Granite State of New Hampshire will matter this campaign season. 

This week the focus has been on Iowa thanks to the decision by two of the four GOP frontrunners to skip the Ames straw poll in August.

Despite that choice, it doesn’t look like any of the major contenders are going to skip the caucuses themselves. McCain, for instance, followed up his decision not to participate in the straw poll by adding a visit to Iowa this weekend.

And the Giuliani campaign, in defending their decision to cede the straw poll to Mitt Romney, pledged to hire more Iowa staff and pronounced themselves as in the caucuses to win.

As I’ve written previously, I believe Iowa will matter a great deal. It has the CHANCE to END the campaign.

For instance, if either Giuliani or Clinton win their respective caucuses, they will have essentially won the nomination. If Obama or Edwards can’t beat Clinton in Iowa, they will have a hard time beating her anywhere. Ditto for Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson in their attempts to stop Giuliani. Iowa is easily the toughest state for both Clinton and Giuliani to win, so if they can make it there… 

Iowa is a must-win for anyone not named Giuliani or Clinton.

Does New Hampshire matter?
So what about New Hampshire? Will it matter?

Frankly, I have my doubts. It’s all in the hands of their Secretary of State Bill Gardner.  When he decides to hold the primary will determine the fate of New Hampshire’s significance in the process.

The joke among most insiders is they half expect Gardner to move the primary to the week after Thanksgiving, therefore guaranteeing that the state stays first. 

Frankly, if New Hampshire did announce this move and Iowa did NOT follow, then, maybe, it would become influential. Then again, the media and candidate backlash on moving a primary for a 2008 campaign to 2007 might be enough to cause major candidates to decide to skip the state.

Frankly, moving into 2007, while comically interesting, is riskier than holding their primary a few days after a Nevada caucus that many candidates aren’t going to take that seriously.

So what should Gardner do?

I think the best chance New Hampshire has to stay relevant is to move up a bit but do so in conjunction with Iowa. Move up a week to Jan. 15 and then hope Iowa moves from Jan. 14 to Jan. 7. Then the spacing of the calendar, at least in January, has some sanity to it. 

The timeline for the candidates
Each week would present the candidates with a unique test.

Jan. 7: Iowa forces the candidates to organize on a very local level, makes them a bit more in tune with their base constituencies and introduces them to a state that is as purple and divided as any in the country.

Jan. 15: New Hampshire, with its large number of registered independents exposes the candidates to an atmosphere that more closely resembles a general election electorate but in a small enough state so that everyone has a chance to meet the candidates, making money a factor but not ultimately decisive.

Jan. 19: For now, just Nevada is set to go on this Saturday. It’s a caucus, frankly, that I don’t think will matter. Who is going to show up? No one has the foggiest idea. It’s a Saturday night. This is one event on the presidential campaign trail that will essentially fall into the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” meaning no influence outside of the state.

Jan. 22: If the two South Carolina parties are smart, this is where they decide to hold their primary.  I know the South Carolina Republicans are ticked off at Florida moving to Jan. 29, but instead of making a big stink, they should hope New Hampshire moves up a week leaving this gaping hole in the calendar to be filled by the first-in-the-South small-state test. In the past, the two state parties haven’t worked together at all to make their presidential primary relevant. For some reason, Republicans like holding their primary on a Saturday (making Jan. 19 or Jan. 12 a possibility according to some state Republicans). But that’s silly. Just hold it on this Tuesday and the candidates will come. For the Democrats, it’s the first test for them with African-Americans. For the Republicans, it’s a key test with the Southern base. All-in-all, a perfect table setter for…

Florida is a microcosm
Jan. 29: Florida is set for this date. There’s no large state in the union that better represents the makeup of the entire country than Florida. Think about it: the Southeast of the state mirrors the Northeast of the country; the Southwest of the state has a solid Midwestern feel; the Central part of the state is akin to the exurbs and Southwestern growth parts of the country; of course the Panhandle is the Deep South; and Key West is like San Francisco. A perfect microcosm.

Now, for what it’s worth, Florida may not be alone on the 29th. Michigan is making noises. It’s not a bad idea, frankly, if both Florida and Michigan share this date. They would be the first large state tests, one heavy with the old economy and one heavy with the new economy.  An excellent transition for the candidates to learn to campaign from the small states to the big states. And a great primer for…

Feb. 5: Tsunami Tuesday.  I’ve argued before that I think this primary date has the potential to be an afterthought. Maybe “afterthought” is too harsh, but what I think it ends up being is the exclamation point on whoever is the winner of Florida. It’s hard to imagine the candidate that wins Florida (on either side) somehow coming up short on Tsunami Tuesday.  Still, why not give the entire country a say on who the early states picked as their favorites in the month of January.

If this is the calendar, it’s making the best of a bad situation. There’s no right answer when it comes to the primary calendar, but the above is the rational compromise that any of the interested parties can hope for.

But it all depends on what Gardner does. If he’s too parochial and too stubborn, he risks making the New Hampshire primary irrelevant or simply akin to a straw poll. Moving up a week makes sense given what Florida did. Moving up more than that though could upset the delicate balance of all of this.

Gardner's deadline
Whatever Gardner decides to do, he must do it soon.

The fact is New Hampshire only stays relevant if it gives the national media and the national candidates a chance to plan to compete and cover the event.  Spending time in various N.H. campaign headquarters indicated to me that they are trying to be prepared for whatever he decides, but if he does something overly radical, then will it be worth it to the campaigns to move resources away from other states to New Hampshire? I’m not sure.

New Hampshire does offer something unique and that’s its large portion of independent voters who can vote in either primary. It pits candidates from both parties against each other. In ’00, it pitted McCain against Bill Bradley.

This year, it appears the candidates vying the most for New Hampshire’s independents are Obama and McCain. So, here’s hoping New Hampshire stays within the January lines.

If they do, their prestige will continue.

If they don’t, New Hampshire’s relevance is in jeopardy from more than a Nevada caucus or Feb. 5 frontloading.