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State won't fight primary date

By KEVIN LANDRIGAN/Telegraph Staff

October 8, 1999
Web posted at: 1:32 p.m. EDT (1732 GMT)


CONCORD (The Telegraph of Nashua, October 8) -- Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and leaders in the state Legislature decided Thursday not to fight or switch from plans to hold the first-in-the-nation primary Feb. 1.

A day after plotting a special session to change the date to please officials in Iowa - home of the first caucus - key legislators backed off and deferred to Secretary of State Bill Gardner's scheduling of the vote.

"After polling the members of both legislative bodies it is clear that there is no desire to pursue changing the primary date through legislative action at this time," said Senate President Beverly Hollingworth, D-Hampton.

"We have given the power to the secretary of state to protect New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary status, and we must live with his decision. " Shaheen said in a statement that she had "become concerned " after Gardner surprised political observers - including herself - by moving the primary date up a week from a tentative Feb. 8 to Feb. 1.

"We should be working together with Iowa as we have in the past to protect the status and relevance of the first-in-the-nation caucus and the first-in-the-nation primary," Shaheen said.

"However, under New Hampshire law, Secretary Gardner has the authority to set the date of the primary. Secretary Gardner's decision will stand, and we must now focus our efforts on protecting our primary."

Gardner said he was pleased by the decision not to call lawmakers back next week to consider legislation to either schedule the next primary Feb. 8 or take away his authority to set the date.

"I'm pleased by that, but I don't want to comment any further and enflame this situation," he said.

Indeed, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack - along with Republican and Democratic party leaders in that state - have said they are intent on holding their caucuses as scheduled Jan. 31, the night before New Hampshire's primary.

They have asked national party leaders to intervene and, if need be, refuse to seat New Hampshire delegates at the nominating conventions.

This would permit Iowa to ignore its own law, which compels it to hold its caucuses eight days before New Hampshire's primary or - in this case - Jan. 24. Iowa officials say that earlier date would be a logistical nightmare because it coincides with a national pork producer convention held in Des Moines that same week.

Vilsack had claimed Shaheen supported the plea to move New Hampshire's date to Feb. 8, but the governor never confirmed that to be her point of view.

The work to keep New Hampshire's primary intact will heat up Oct. 15 when the Democratic National Committee's Rule and By-Laws group will meet in Washington, D.C., and consider requests for states to get waivers from party rules.

New Hampshire Democratic Chairwoman Kathleen Sullivan said she probably will go along with Democratic National Committee member Joe Keefe, a former state party chairman.

"I had every confidence we could get a Feb. 8 primary approved. When it comes to Feb. 1, I don't have the same level of confidence at all, " Sullivan said. Both Keefe and Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Rob Tully sit on the powerful DNC's rules panel.

"The most frustrating thing of all to me is there is no need for this dispute. We've always worked well in Iowa and could have in this instance," Sullivan said.

Gardner said he never set New Hampshire's primary date and that Iowa did not consult with him before setting its caucus on three different dates, most recently on Jan. 31.

"I've always said Iowa is free to do whatever they choose to do - hold it the week before, the night before, the month after," Gardner said. Sullivan said if New Hampshire were to receive the stiffest penalty, it would lose 11 out of its 26 delegates at the Democratic nominating convention in Los Angeles next August.

"Frankly, if I'm not a delegate and lose my seat, it won't be the end of the world. But losing the primary long term because of this would be a very sad thing, and I'm worried about that right now."

On the GOP front, it will be the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia next July that will decide whether to seat New Hampshire's delegation because it failed to submit a firm primary date before a deadline last July 1.

GOP State Chairman Steve Duprey could not be reached for comment.

Shaheen met with legislative leaders privately Wednesday to discuss the prospect of bringing lawmakers in for a special session next week to change the primary date.

But calls to rank-and-file legislators late Wednesday and Thursday found little support for the idea, especially among Republican members of the House of Representatives, according to Deputy Speaker Donnalee Lozeau, R-Nashua.

"They just didn't see the point in it. This is not something the speaker would want to put in motion unless it's got overwhelming support among the membership, and it just wasn't there," Lozeau said.

House Speaker Donna Sytek, R-Salem, said she hopes the dispute doesn't have a negative, "permanent effect" on New Hampshire's primary status.

House Democratic Leader Peter Burling, D-Cornish, said there had been sufficient backing among his minority membership to make the date change. "The secretary of state is the authority in this matter. If there are consequences that follow from this, they are his consequences," Burling said of Gardner.

The move to Feb. 1 by Gardner came last week because Delaware Republicans were considering holding their own primary Feb. 8.

New Hampshire law gives the state at least a seven-day window between the next primary.

Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver said Gardner should have ruled Delaware's GOP primary to be a "non-similar event," as he did in 1996.

But Gardner said GOP officials in Delaware tried to make peace with New Hampshire's desire for a seven-day window and were planning to hold a legitimate primary in 2000 as opposed to a "beauty contest" event in 1996, where only one candidate had actively campaigned.

Former Gov. John Sununu came to Gardner's aid, noting New Hampshire and Iowa have had similar run-ins before.

"Everyone has to understand this is a battle that has been fought for at least 20 years, and we have a very experienced hand handling it," Sununu said.

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