Mitt Romney’s Bill Gardner Problem

The Secretary of State of New Hampshire has the power to set the date of the Granite State’s primary and maybe even Mitt Romney’s future.

Bespectacled and balding, Secretary of State Bill Gardner doesn’t exactly cut an intimidating figure. But, every four years he finds a way to become the center of the political universe. With sole control over setting the date of New Hampshire’s “First in the Nation” primary, Gardner takes pride in defending this small state from encroachment by big state bullies who want to steal their place as the retail campaign capital of the country.

As he’s done before when he’s felt the state’s status is being encroached upon, Gardner is threatening to move the state’s primary into December. Nevada’s decision to make January 14 the date of its caucuses means that, by New Hampshire law, a primary can be held no later than January 7. But, that is just a mere four days – not the required seven day window – after the January 3 Iowa Caucuses.

While most political pros see little choice for Gardner but to accept a January 7 or January 10 date, there are some in New Hampshire that think that the 35-year incumbent may not be bluffing.

But a December 6 or December 13th primary — two dates Gardner has suggested are acceptable — could make for big problems for Romney.

First, December is less than two months away. And, Romney is way ahead in just about every poll in the state. Candidates not named Romney — or Jon Huntsman, who has staked his entire candidacy on this state — would likely concede the race to the former Massachusetts Governor.

Plus any momentum from an early December primary would soon be drowned out by the sounds of the Holidays.

This would then place the Iowa caucuses as the first “real” political test of the 2012 primary season. And, that’s not something the Romney camp wants to see. The typical Iowa caucus voter — evangelical and socially conservative — isn’t the kind of voter Romney naturally appeals to, which is why the Romney campaign is downplaying expectations that they’ll even put in a full-out effort here.

Then there’s Nevada, another state where Romney is expected to clean up. If Nevada doesn’t move its date, however, at least five Republicans, including Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, have vowed to boycott any campaigning in the state. In other words, a victory here for Romney would be worthless.

So, that leaves South Carolina, a state where Romney would be considered an underdog to a southerner like Rick Perry, as the next “real” competitive primary on January 21st.

Bottom line: the Romney “inevitability” narrative relies on Romney being able to run up the score early and take the wind out of the sails of any of his opponents. Back to back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire could do that. Or even a close second in Iowa and a big win in New Hampshire a few days later. But, if New Hampshire gets pushed to December, Romney loses his catapult and will instead be forced to put up wins in states that aren’t quite as friendly to him.