By Jason McLure
LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - New Hampshire is considering moving up its Republican primary to as early as December 6 as states vie for more influence in picking the party's nominee for the 2012 presidential election, a senior state official said on Wednesday.
New Hampshire jealously guards its traditional position of holding the first primary and the second contest overall in the presidential nominating race, behind the Iowa caucuses. But other states have moved forward their contests, threatening New Hampshire's status.
Secretary of State William Gardner, New Hampshire's top election official, criticized Nevada Republicans for rescheduling their caucus for January 14 -- a move that was prompted by Florida advancing its primary.
"It's really up to Nevada," Gardner said in a statement. "If Nevada does not accept a date of Tuesday, January 17 or later for its caucus, it leaves New Hampshire no choice but to consider December of this year."
Iowa has tentatively set its caucus for January 3. Gardner said state law meant that New Hampshire's primary could be held no later than January 7, a Saturday rather than the usual Tuesday.
"A January 14 Nevada caucus would squeeze us into a date that wedges us by just a few days between two major caucus states," Gardner said, referring to Iowa and Nevada.
Instead, he said December 13 and December 6 were "realistic options, and we have logistics in place to make either date happen if needed," Gardner said.
MOVE COULD BENEFIT IOWA
A move to December would likely draw criticism that the selection process is beginning too early and not giving voters adequate time to assess the candidates. It could benefit Iowa, however, as it would give the state four weeks after the New Hampshire primary to host presidential hopefuls.
Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, said a compressed schedule would favor Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, as it would give other candidates less time to introduce themselves to voters.
But Gardner said an early vote would do no damage.
"Candidates have been campaigning here, and elsewhere, for months, and it is about time we begin the next stage of the presidential nominating process," he said.
In the process of choosing the presidential nominees fielded by the two major U.S. political parties, candidates compete in primary elections or other contests in the states to win delegates who ultimately pick the nominees in party conventions.
New Hampshire's primary had historically been held on the second Tuesday in March, the state's traditional "town meeting" day. In 2008, it was held on Jan 8, five days after Iowa, as other states moved their votes forward.
There will be no Democratic primaries because President Barack Obama is unopposed for the party's nomination.
The Republican nominee is due to face Obama in the November 6, 2012, general election.
(Reporting by Jason McLure; Editing by Ros Krasny and Peter Cooney)