By Scott Malone
CONCORD, N.H. (Reuters) - As New Hampshire braces for another wave of White House hopefuls next year seeking votes in the first-in-the-nation nominating primary, much of the credit for the state's hold on that position goes to one man: Secretary of State William Gardner.
For the past four decades, Gardner has outmaneuvered states including Florida and Nevada to protect the front-runner spot mandated by New Hampshire law - and it has not always been easy. The state has steadily moved forward its primary, originally held in March. It shoe-horned the past two contests into January.
Ask Gardner when the 2016 primary, which marks the 100th anniversary of the event, will be held and he smiles, careful not to limit his options.
"I have never set the date and then changed it," said Gardner, 66. "I wait until I feel it's safe to do it and then I do it."
But the early January primaries of 2008 and 2012 were unpopular with Democratic and Republican officials, who worried that Americans were paying more attention to holiday parties than to candidates barnstorming New Hampshire and Iowa, whose citizens kick off nominating season with caucuses.
This time around, observers said, it is unlikely that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush will be showing up at diners in Manchester or town meetings in the White Mountains between Christmas and New Year's next year.
"I suspect that this time will be different, that we won't have the creep that we've had," said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
The Republican National Committee has established rules penalizing states that hold votes ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada, he noted.
Regardless of when the primary is held, White House hopefuls already are making the rounds in New Hampshire, where voters expect to speak to candidates in person before they vote.
Most make multiple visits to the state before arriving at Gardner's state house office, where candidates from former President George W. Bush to Clinton have sat down at a wooden desk and filled out the paperwork to get on New Hampshire's primary ballot.
Several voters said they were looking forward to the flood of candidates.
"I enjoy it and you get to know much more about them than you would just watching TV and reading the papers," Nancy LeBlanc, a 77-year-old retiree, said over breakfast at Chez Vachon, a Manchester diner popular with barnstorming candidates.
The state's political leaders contend that voters like LeBlanc play a valuable role in the U.S. political process by allowing little-known names to gain momentum.
In recent decades, Republican Arizona Senator John McCain, and Democratic former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter both used strong showings in New Hampshire to snag their parties' nominations after lackluster early starts.
The primary is all the more valuable as television ads play an ever-greater role in later stages of campaigns.
"A candidate that comes in with $20 million in the bank already has a lead on one who does not," said Jennifer Horn, chairman of the state's Republican Party. "A state like New Hampshire allows those other candidates a fair chance."
Outside the state, some see New Hampshire's position as little more than a quirk of history and doubt that its voters are more astute than those in any other state.
"Why should it always be Iowa and New Hampshire? There are plenty of states with two or three electoral votes that could kick off the process," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"But it's not going to change," he said.
Regardless of how unique New Hampshire's voters are, observers agreed that Gardner, who has held his position since 1976, has stood out for his ability to uphold the New Hampshire law that requires its primary to be the first by at least a week.
"There is no such thing as pressuring Bill Gardner and woe to the person who tries," said Ray Buckley, chairman of the state's Democratic Party. "Bill is going to do what he thinks is best for the primary and that's it."
Gardner, who served briefly in the state legislature before taking on his current role, said he has no intention of allowing New Hampshire's position to slip.
"As long as the people of the state have the will to keep this, they will keep this," Gardner said. "There are not a whole lot of political traditions in this country that are lasting. This is one."
(Reporting by Scott Malone)