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NH to Utah: The first-in-the-nation primary is ours, back off

Published March 6, 2014 2:17 pm

Presidential elections • Could Utah make a play to take over the leading role?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is urging Utah lawmakers to reject a bill that would try to put the Beehive State ahead of Iowa or New Hampshire in the presidential primary race, arguing that New Hampshire's 100-year-old contest is the best test of candidates.

A House committee this week advanced HB410, providing that if Utah wanted to fund an early presidential primary, it must do so a week before any similar balloting. It's a clear shot at New Hampshire and Iowa, both of which grab the attention of the national news media and major candidates for months. Rep. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, says it's unfair for those two states to always get the spotlight and Utah could actually play a role in electing the next president.

But Gardner, who by law must place the New Hampshire primary a week before any similar contest, says his state's contest allows all candidates to compete on the same level, working town markets and holding house parties instead of campaigning through major television ads and fly-in-fly-out stump speeches.

"I've heard the arguments over the years and I wish they wouldn't," Gardner said when told about the Utah bill. "I would hope that another state wouldn't do it."

There are benefits to holding the first contests in the presidential race, and New Hampshire is full of reminders of them. Walk into a diner in Manchester and you'll find pictures of the owner with a variety of presidents and presidential wannabes, small-town newspapers command serious attention from candidates and voters get ample opportunities to ask specific questions of those they may vote for.

It's a unique situation that now begins with Iowa, moves to New Hampshire, then South Carolina and Nevada. Being first can't be beat, say political observers.

"If you want to get the prettiest girl, always best to get to the dance early," says Mark McKinnon, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush's campaigns and the co-founder of the No Labels effort.

Cox, a freshman lawmaker appointed, says other states need to stop letting Iowa and New Hampshire control the process of picking presidential nominees. It's gone on far too long, he said.

"The reason for this bill, is in my mind, our presidential nominating process is blatantly discriminatory," Cox said during a committee hearing this week. "I believe it creates second-class states."

There are, however, consequences for jumping ahead.

The Republican National Committee has carved out the right for the traditional early states to go first without any retribution. Other states that try to move ahead lose a significant number of delegates at the national conventions. Utah's GOP, for example, has 40 delegates but would be reduced to nine if it goes before March 1, 2016.

The Democratic National Committee hasn't set its rules for primaries yet but is expected to follow its past protection of the traditional early states and penalize those who try to compete.

Cox says the benefits of being first would outweigh the delegate penalties because New Hampshire, for instance, only has 14 delegates to begin with.

His bill would allow the state to use online voting — which it currently permits for overseas military voters — as a way to let Utah be more flexible in choosing the eventual date for the primary, and to lower the cost of holding it. If the Legislature passes Cox's bill and Gov. Gary Herbert signs it, the state would first have to fund the Western States Primary to move forward.

Former Gov. Mike Leavitt first pitched the idea of a primary that combined several states in the Rocky Mountain region as a way to get candidates to pay attention to the Intermountain West. Not enough states signed on to make the effort worthwhile.

New Hampshire, however, claimed the first-in-the-nation status by simply sticking with its primary during the early- and mid-1900s when other states jettisoned their contests. When less-well-known candidates with little money started winning delegates against more popular and well-funded contenders, the primary became the standard test it is today.

Gardner, who has overseen the New Hampshire primary since 1976, says he understands when other states say it isn't fair that the Granite State gets all the presidential focus but he says the legacy came naturally — the state didn't steal it away from anyone or try to jump ahead — and that it's a proud tradition voters there won't give up on.

"We've had it 100 years, why would we say, 'OK, just take it from us?' " Gardner said, adding that every state has its own long-established culture. New Hampshire's happens to be politics.

"What if Maryland or Louisiana said, 'It's not fair that the Statue of Liberty is always in New York. Why can't we tow it down to Baltimore or to New Orleans?' There's an historical reason why [the first primary] got to be where it is. There's an historic reason why the Kentucky Derby is in Kentucky."

In the end, even if Utah moved and funded an early primary, it may not bring the attention the state would hope for. When other states in the past have tried to bigfoot Iowa and New Hampshire, candidates stayed away, fearful they would offend the early state voters that see it as their right to start the selection process.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, for example, avoided Nevada's early primary during the 2012 race as he campaigned for months straight in New Hampshire.

tburr@sltrib.com