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That 'first-in-the-nation' tag once belonged to Florida

CONCORD, N.H.

Four years ago, Democratic presidential candidates terrified of antagonizing party activists in the exalted early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire signed a pledge to boycott Florida's earlier-than-allowed January presidential primary.

No one was more disgusted by that boycott — and especially the image of candidates raising money from Florida fat cats while refusing to mix it up with rank-and-file voters — than the chief protector of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.

"I did not support that boycott. No elected official in New Hampshire did,'' said New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner. "The fact that a candidate could talk about his vision for America to people that were willing to pay, but the average little guy couldn't necessarily be there is the absolute upside down of what it should be — and the opposite of what New Hampshire is about."

Gardner, 63, has sole authority to schedule New Hampshire's primary, and is reviled by more than a few political leaders across the country as an obstinate bully for refusing to let anyone else share New Hampshire's unmatched influence in the presidential nominations.

In person though, America's toughest political poker player is an amiable, absent-minded history professor. Veering from one historical anecdote to another, he gushes with idealism when talking about civic participation and New Hampshire's traditions.

And contrary to party leaders in other states, who were livid that Florida broke the rules by setting an early primary, Gardner also makes the case that Florida has plenty of historic precedent to argue it should be among the earlier contests (after New Hampshire, of course).

Some background: Presidential primaries didn't even exist until early 20th century reformers such as Wisconsin's progressive Gov. Robert La Follette grew resentful that party bosses picked the nominees in back-room deals. The first state to hold a presidential primary election? Florida, where Democrats in 1904 elected delegates to the national convention, though these delegates were free to back whoever they chose.

Florida held the earliest primary in the country from 1920 to 1968 (Iowa weighs in earlier, but those are arcane caucus elections), before the Granite State's primary gained the status it has today. That year in New Hampshire, Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson barely squeaked by longshot Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

"Just about every elected official in this state, every party leader was for the incumbent president. Just about everybody thought it was going to be automatic," said Gardner, who has talked about that election thousands of times and still practically sputters with patriotic zeal when recounting it.

"What happened? This guy comes in, McCarthy. He was not a really good speaker, but he talked about something that connected and resonated with the people of this state. Everyone thought he was going to get single digits and was not a real serious candidate. And he ends up not only breaking into double digits but he got over 40 percent of the vote,'' Gardner said. "New Hampshire allows for the little guy to be able to have a chance. A person can come to this state and spend time here — and not have to spend a whole lot of money because of the political structure here — and have a chance to be president. That's something that we hold dearly because we want to make it easy for people to get on the ballot."

That primary made such a splash, other states quickly began coveting the attention on New Hampshire. One of the first states to try to snatch some of the spotlight was Nevada, where in 1969 a 27-year-old state legislator named Harry Reid helped push through legislation to set Nevada's primary one week earlier than New Hampshire.

Gardner only recently dug up the history of that long-forgotten Nevada threat. Turns out New Hampshire's governor, Walter Peterson, had become pals with Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt at governors' association meetings and made a call. Gardner cherishes Laxalt's neighborly veto message of that primary bill.

"He said, 'I'm vetoing this because I talked to the governor of New Hampshire, who told me about the history and tradition of the New Hampshire primary,' " Gardner recounted. "He said, 'I don't want to create ill-will with a sister state. And even if we were successful, some other state four years from now will come and try to take it from us. And there will be leap-frogging.' "

The next threat came from Florida, where Florida House Speaker Richard Pettigrew of Miami, a strong Ed Muskie supporter, thought an early Florida primary in 1972 would help ensure Democrats nominated a strong general election candidate.

"I wanted us to have more of a say in the primary because I thought, in order to carry Florida, we needed a more moderate posture,'' Pettigrew said by phone last week.

Florida moved its primary from late May to the second Tuesday in March, prompting New Hampshire to move its primary a week earlier.

What Pettigrew didn't count on was George Wallace switching from being an independent candidate to a Democratic one, at a time when the country was mired in a bitter debate over busing and segregation. Wallace swept Florida.

Meanwhile, another candidate, former New York Mayor John Lindsay, learned the risk of snubbing the Granite State that year. He essentially parked himself in Florida, and still got trounced in the primary.

A couple years ago, Rudy Giuliani, another New York mayor who suffered the same fate 36 years later, stopped in Gardner's office and learned of Lindsay's Florida miscalculation.

"I said to him, 'What is it about you New Yorkers?' It's hard to accept if you're from New York City you have to deal with this little place, New Hampshire,'' a chuckling Gardner recounted. "He laughed and his comment to me was, 'You should tell this story to everyone. I wish I had known, I wish you had told me then.' "

Four years later in 1976, Florida's early primary played a key role in catapulting Jimmy Carter to the nomination after he trounced George Wallace in the Sunshine State.

In 1980, though, Florida leaders let the state's primary status ebb. Several Southern states, including Georgia and Alabama, decided to move their primaries to the second Tuesday in March in an effort to help steer Democrats to a more moderate candidate.

And in South Carolina, a young Republican operative working for Ronald Reagan, Lee Atwater, convinced the GOP to set that state's Republican primary for the Saturday before Florida's. Since then, the state that brought us the Civil War and George W. Bush has zealously protected its status as the first primary in the South.

Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio was the main force in pushing Florida back into the nominating spotlight. The Legislature in 2007 moved Florida's primary to late January, despite the promise of penalties from the national parties for violating the officially sanctioned nominating schedule.

Rubio and other legislative leaders never voiced much sympathy for South Carolina's relatively recent claim to special status as an early state, but from his office in America's oldest State House Gardner closely monitored Rubio's rhetoric on the primary schedule, which always respected New Hampshire's history.

On Jan. 31 Florida will hold the third and potentially decisive election in the Republican presidential contest. New Hampshire's sentry for participatory democracy thinks it's a valid place for Florida to hold.

"There clearly is history with Florida's primary,'' he said.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

That 'first-in-the-nation' tag once belonged to Florida

12/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 17, 2011 3:31am]

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