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Pushing N.H.'s primary position

In 1975, state Representative Jim Splaine sponsored the first New Hampshire law intended to preserve the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

Three decades later, the Portsmouth Democrat remains in the thick of the effort to maintain the state's early-bird perch in presidential politics.

Splaine, who represents Newington and Portsmouth, is the sponsor of legislation that would give New Hampshire's secretary of state flexibility to adjust the filing period for presidential candidates to get earlier commitments to run in the primary. Currently, the period encompasses about three weeks in November of the year preceding the primary.

The measure recently passed the House and the Senate, and is headed for the desk of Governor John Lynch, who has indicated that he plans to sign it.

Splaine said the bill would give the secretary of state another tool to prevent the erosion of New Hampshire's unique place on the national political calendar.

Some of that protection comes from previous legislation sponsored by Splaine. The first was the 1975 law, which required New Hampshire to hold its primary a week before any other New England state.

Several years later, while a state senator, he got the law reworded to require that the primary be held a week before any other state in the nation.

Then in 1999, as a state representative again, he sponsored another revision that replaced the word ''week" with ''seven days or more."

Splaine said with the newest bill, the secretary of state could ''adjust the filing period whenever he feels the need to in order to encourage candidates to file, and essentially commit that they are going to run, in New Hampshire."

The Democratic National Committee's recent move to add one or two additional ''first-tier" caucuses between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary in 2008 shows why that flexibility is needed, Splaine said.

A commission formed by the DNC to study the timing of presidential primaries and caucuses recommended the plan to add as many as two new front-tier caucuses. The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee accepted the proposal last month, and next weekend is set to hear testimony from states interested in holding the caucuses. The full Democratic National Committee is expected to act on the plan this summer.

If new caucuses are added, New Hampshire could schedule its primary before them. But Splaine said the national party or other state parties might counter by urging candidates to skip the New Hampshire primary.

Under his new bill, the secretary of state could thwart any such move by requiring presidential hopefuls to commit to running in the New Hampshire primary as early as the spring of 2007, well before the primary date is set.

''With approval of this bill, all states and the national political parties should be put on notice that New Hampshire will do whatever is necessary to preserve our tradition," Splaine wrote in the majority report by the House Election Law Committee, which recommended passage of the bill, in February.

Damien LaVera, spokesman for the DNC, said last week, ''The commission's report was explicit in seeking to preserve Iowa and New Hampshire's historic roles as the first caucus and primary in the nation, which is why the commission recommended not adding another primary before New Hampshire. Nothing in these re-commendations is intended to prevent candidates from running in the New Hampshire primary."

Lynch, a Democrat, supports the legislation and intends to sign it, said his press secretary, Pamela Walsh.

''Governor Lynch is committed to working with the secretary of state to protect the New Hampshire primary, and this legislation will give us additional flexibility to support those efforts," she said.

Secretary of State William M. Gardner, a Democrat, also supports the bill. Gardner said last week that because the law provides for flexibility in the setting of the primary date, ''the filing period needs to be flexible as well."

Not everyone embraces the measure. In the minority report of the Election Law Committee, state Representative William L. O'Brien, a Republican from Mont Vernon, wrote, ''Before we change New Hampshire's law to accommodate national party assaults on New Hampshire's presidential primary, we ought to be assured that the change will defend our state against the assault and not be used against the state." He warned that there was no assurance that the proposed law would not be used by Democratic candidates as a reason not to participate.

Splaine, 55, came to politics through his involvement in the antiwar and civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was first elected to the House at age 18 in 1968.

He said he initially became an advocate for the New Hampshire primary after witnessing it firsthand in 1968 and 1972. Believing that it had contributed to President Johnson's withdrawal from the 1968 presidential race and George McGovern's nomination in 1972, he came to see the primary as a grass-roots vehicle for effecting change.

That initial enthusiasm has not waned.

''The more I've seen money dictating who gets elected in politics, the more I see the value of having the beginning of a presidential campaign get underway in a state like New Hampshire," he said.

''This is not about New Hampshire. This is about our country, our democracy," he said, reiterating similar comments he made on the House floor in February. ''It's about . . . preserving a process that allows people to run for president who might not be the richest and most wildly supported at the moment."

Charles Proulx of Exeter also strongly backs efforts to protect the state's primary, including the most recent bill. A member of the Resolutions Committee of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Proulx is also communications director for Democracy in Action, a state political action committee that supports progressive candidates.

Proulx said he is sensitive to the fact that New Hampshire is a small state that lacks the cross section of people found in larger states. ''But having participated in it, and seeing how people right, left, and center . . . are engaged in the process, I've come away very impressed with it," he said.

Splaine has been involved with other causes over the years. He filed the first bill to establish a state holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1979, and cosponsored the bill that eventually accomplished the goal two decades later. He was also active in the effort to save the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Although some of his constituents ''wonder why we should spend so much time talking about this," Splaine said, most recognize the value of protecting the state's primary.

''It allows New Hampshire people to meet the candidates who are running. There is something valuable about that. But I also think there is something valuable about the candidates learning from us about what some real people's problems are. I think people see that."

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