By Jason McLure
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - The campaign issue for many Republicans in New Hampshire continues to be not taxes or healthcare or border security, but the state's right to its traditional "first in the nation" primary contest.
State elected officials and editorial boards hit out on Tuesday at frontrunner Mitt Romney's refusal to join a potential boycott of the Nevada caucus if Republican officials there do not move the vote back.
Long-shot candidate Jon Huntsman kept up the heat, campaigning in New Hampshire while Romney and other Republicans prepared to debate in Nevada.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, is staking his campaign on defending New Hampshire in its spat with Nevada over the timing of early 2012 nominating contests.
Nevada's decision to switch its caucus date from February to mid-January -- one pushed by Romney's campaign --has forced New Hampshire to consider holding its vote in December to avoid being squeezed between Iowa on January 3, and Nevada, tentatively set for January 14.
Five of the eight major Republican candidates have said they would consider boycotting Nevada for moving its caucus. Romney, Texas Representative Ron Paul and Texas Governor Rick Perry have refused to join in the boycott.
"We're here showing our campaign support for the New Hampshire primary at a time when Nevada is pulling some political shenanigans," Huntsman said on Tuesday after a campaign stop in Manchester.
"As for Mr. Romney, he hasn't embraced the boycott. If you're not willing to stand with the people of New Hampshire when their first in the nation status is being questioned, it gives rise to the question of where do you stand?"
WIDE LEAD THREATENED?
Romney has held a wide lead over his nearest rivals in New Hampshire polls for two years, and boasts dozens of endorsements from state politicians. But the sense of inevitability around his candidacy could be in doubt.
Romney "might be surprised about how much support he will lose," said New Hampshire House Speaker William O'Brien.
"They're going to look at someone who they thought they had known for a while and had an appreciation for the New Hampshire primary, but has nonetheless chosen to harm the primary for his own advantage."
On Tuesday, businessman Herman Cain picked up a handful of endorsements in New Hampshire, including that of former Republican state chairman Jack Kimball.
Romney's campaign lobbied Nevada's Republican Party to move its caucus to January from February, former Nevada governor and Republican National Committee member Robert List said Tuesday.
Romney is a favorite in Nevada and a win there and in New Hampshire would give him significant momentum. But List said Nevada's move was an "independent decision."
The Union Leader, New Hampshire's largest newspaper, lauded Huntsman in an editorial Tuesday, while accusing Romney of being "willing to sacrifice an institution beneficial to the republic (the New Hampshire primary) for his own political advantage."
The state's Congressional delegation issued a statement warning that "those who have tried to diminish the role of our primary in the past have seen their candidacies founder."
Romney's campaign hastily arranged a conference call between the candidate and his New Hampshire supporters, and said Romney was "firmly committed to preserving New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary."
(Reporting by Jason McLure; Editing by Ros Krasny and Jerry Norton)