Nevada's jump ahead in the GOP presidential nominating calendar has prompted new rounds of finger pointing, insider wrangling and political threats. But some Republicans worry the biggest losers may turn out to be voters.
Republicans in the Western state announced earlier this week that they would hold their caucuses on Jan. 14, a shift that triggered a domino effect forcing other states to rethink the timing of their own contests. And now, despite private warnings from Republican officials in Washington, it's looking more and more likely that Iowa and New Hampshire could schedule the nation's first presidential voting for the height of the coming holiday season.
A late December timeline _ a month sooner than expected and two months earlier than the Republican National Committee had wanted _ would be unprecedented in the modern history of presidential politics. And it would certainly inject an unwanted political element into Christmas shopping and New Year's Eve festivities.
"You'll be getting candidate fliers with your Christmas cards," says Phyllis Woods, a New Hampshire member of the RNC who is monitoring the situation closely.
The timing also has a direct impact on campaign strategy and each voter's ability to scrutinize the Republican candidates fighting for the right to compete against President Barack Obama in 13 months.
"It's not doing the voters a great service having these primaries moved up a month," said John Hikel, a New Hampshire state representative. "I don't understand it. There are important stops these candidates need to make that there won't be time for."
Nevada is among a host of states that violated party rules by pushing up their elections to garner more influence in the presidential nominating process. It's unclear whether there will be any consequences. An RNC spokesman declined to comment publicly Thursday.
The spotlight now turns to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has the sole discretion to schedule the Granite State's first-in-the-nation primary. Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said he would like to schedule Iowa's caucuses for Jan. 5, hoping that Gardner sets the New Hampshire primary for Jan. 10.
That could be optimistic.
"I'm not sure that we've seen everything yet. And I really don't want to start speculating about what we might do," Gardner said Thursday, noting he may schedule the primary for December or on a non-Tuesday in early January. "I'm going to set the date at a time that I believe will honor the tradition of being first."
Gardner, who has set eight primary elections over the last three decades, said he is not likely to make a decision before Oct. 17. Strawn said he would make a decision in the next week to 10 days.
One consideration is a provision in New Hampshire law that directs Gardner to schedule the primary at least seven days before any other similar contest. It remains to be seen whether Gardner will interpret the Nevada election _ which entail caucuses _ as "similar" or not. Recent history offers a handful of examples of a New Hampshire primary less than a week before caucuses in other states.
Republican officials in Washington privately warned Thursday that New Hampshire's status as the nation's first primary state could be jeopardized if Gardner schedules the vote too early. New Hampshire officials largely shrugged off the warning, noting that national Republicans have shown little ability to control state parties.
The political squabbling, however, may mean little to voters in early voting states, who will miss out on several weeks of up-close flavor that has come to define Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns.
Candidates may be forced to accelerate advertising schedules and divide travel time between more states. Beneficiaries likely include those candidates with more money _ such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry _ who will try to pad time in the states and ramp up advertising at the same time.
But the impact on Perry may be most striking. Having entered the race just seven weeks ago, he may have lost at least 20 percent of the time he thought he'd have to get his message out.
The Perry campaign has reported raising $17 million through the end of September, with $15 million on hand. The effort to conserve resources was due in part to preparing for a quick start to the nominating contests, Perry's senior adviser Bob Haus said.
"We will have the financial resources and the time to play according to the rules thrown at us," Haus said. "We've been prepared for this eventuality."
Conventional wisdom suggests the earlier start benefits Romney, who has maintained regular contact with supporters in early states, has stronger organizations and more money in the bank.
The Romney campaign disputed reports Thursday that it had lobbied Nevada to go with an earlier date.
"Governor Romney has always supported Nevada's status as an early nominating contest," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "He believes that Iowa's first in-the-nation caucus and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary should be preserved, and he looks forward to competing in every other nominating contest _ whenever they are scheduled."
Top Perry strategist Dave Carney dismissed any notion that Romney had the edge in a compressed calendar.
"The pending new earlier calendar helps Governor Romney is only one respect: less time campaigning means fewer opportunities to change his positions," he said.
A December date would complicate campaigning and the holiday season for voters, who are often preoccupied with other priorities in late December.
"The thing that bothers me most is not about any campaign advantage," said Jamie Burnett, a New Hampshire-based Romney staffer four years ago. "I think it disadvantages voters most. Voters deserve to hear from these candidates when they're hitting their stride. And that shouldn't be at Christmas."
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