(Jim Cole ~ Associated Press)
The date announced by Secretary of State Bill Gardner Wednesday had been widely expected since Nevada Republicans voted last month to shift their presidential caucuses to early February, ending what had become a bitter standoff among rival states. Gardner had warned that Nevada's initial decision to hold its contest in mid-January could force New Hampshire to vote in early December.
"I was sort of on the edge of a cliff," Gardner said. "I was hoping if I had to move, there would be a puddle of water to jump into if necessary."
It's a position Gardner knows well, though he said this year's wrangling over the date wasn't the worst he's faced by a long shot -- that distinction goes to 1984, when he faced intense pressure from the Democratic National Committee to change the date.
New Hampshire state law requires the primary to be held at least seven days ahead of any other similar contest and gives Gardner exclusive power to set the date. That has made him the target of criticism from other states hoping to grab some of the spotlight.
Critics also argue that New Hampshire is too small and too white to play such a major role in picking presidents, but Gardner and other defenders of New Hampshire say the country -- and the candidates -- are well-served because the primary requires close contact with voters, not just name-recognition or advertising cash.
New Hampshire's decision brings welcome clarity to the path for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. New Hampshire will vote a week after the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, with South Carolina's primary on Jan. 21, Florida's on Jan. 31 and the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 4.
Some feared that jockeying states might cram more contests into January, creating an informal national primary that would deprive second-tier candidates of opportunities to regroup and raise money as they raced from state to state. With the calendar set, campaigns can now launch strategies that had been held hostage to an uncertain calendar.
Already, there are signs they are ramping up. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, begins airing his first television advertisements in New Hampshire on Wednesday.
Though Wednesday's announcement comes just 10 weeks before primary day, Gardner has cut it closer before. During the last presidential campaign, he waited until Nov. 21 to set the Jan. 8 date, the earliest date yet.
"I thought after last cycle we would not face this again, and I'm hopeful in next cycle we won't face it again," Gardner said Wednesday. "But there is no simple answer."