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New Hampshire Secretary Of State Defends Primary's First-In-The-Nation Status


Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primary. For the last 40 years, one man has staunchly defended this primary's first-in-the-nation status. That man is Bill Gardner. NPR's Brian Naylor brings us this profile of the nation's longest-serving secretary of state.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The walls of Bill Gardner's second-floor office in the New Hampshire State House are covered with photographs of presidential candidates. There's Lamar Alexander in his trademarked flannel shirt. Over there is Ronald Reagan. Oh, look. It's Gary Hart, and here's Barack Obama.

BILL GARDNER: These were the first steps that Barack Obama took in New Hampshire. He had never been to New Hampshire before. You see he's coming with - carrying his two bags.

NAYLOR: In his four decades as secretary of state, Gardner has had many, many candidates in his office filing papers to get on the primary ballot. It's surprisingly easy to qualify. Assuming you meet the constitutional requirements, all you need is a $1,000, and if you can't swing that, well, 100 signatures will work, too.

GARDNER: This primary is really about the little guy. It was created to give the average person a chance to be part of it, and it was created to be inclusive.

NAYLOR: And while some have dropped out after the Iowa caucuses, the names of 58 candidates remain on this year's New Hampshire ballot. New Hampshire has not always had the first presidential primary. But as other states ended theirs or moved their dates, New Hampshire found itself all alone at the beginning, and now Gardner says it's part of the state's very essence.

GARDNER: We're not smarter than anybody, any others. It's just part of the DNA of the state. It's part of our political heritage, our culture.

NAYLOR: But some outside New Hampshire question whether this state, with its small and largely white population, is representative enough of the electorate as a whole to play such an oversized role in presidential politics. There have been efforts over the years to change the nominating calendar to put other states first. Gardener, backed by state law, has swatted them away. He recalls the time in 1983 when Nancy Pelosi, before she was in Congress, came to his office. The following years, Democratic convention was in San Francisco, and she appealed to Gardner to allow California to go first that year.

GARDNER: She said, well, you're going to have to change it because New Hampshire won't be part of the convention. You're not going to be invited.

NAYLOR: But Gardner refused to back down, and New Hampshire's delegation found its way to San Francisco. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who finished second in New Hampshire in the 2004 primary, also tried to get the state to change its date when he became head of the Democratic National Committee. He failed, but as recently as this past October, Dean told Concord News Radio that Gardner was hurting the state.


HOWARD DEAN: You guys need a new secretary of state. If you do that, get rid of Gardner, and get somebody else in there. Gardner's been there too long. He's become autocratic. The candidates don't like him.

NAYLOR: The 67-year-old Gardner, who was a Democratic state representative before taking this job, laughs off Dean's criticism. Current Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus has suggested early states like New Hampshire shouldn't get too comfortable. But Gardner has plenty of supporters, like former Republican Sen. John Sununu.

JOHN SUNUNU: Bill Gardner has been essential in helping to promote the primary and doing that not just by keeping it first but by making sure it works.

NAYLOR: New Hampshire is known for high voter turnout, and Sununu says...

SUNUNU: We've never had, you know, scandals, problems, some of the issues that still plague, unfortunately, polling places across the country.

NAYLOR: Bill Gardner says New Hampshire residents know they're first-in-the-nation primary is a privilege and a tradition. It's something, he says, that grew because there was fertile ground. Brian Naylor, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.