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N.H. Elections Official In The Spotlight

The political heat on William Gardner - the single official with the most control over the presidential primary calendar - has never been hotter.

Gardner's temperature, however, remains cool.

Gardner is the 58-year-old New Hampshire secretary of state, a man who loves history and has been the jealous keeper of his state's first-in-the-nation primary for over three decades.

National party leaders are doing a slow burn waiting for Gardner to schedule a date for the 2008 primary. So are other states' officials who will need to adjust accordingly.

Gardner knows they're waiting, but won't make his move until he's ready. He has said New Hampshire's date can be no later than Jan. 8, but he doesn't give them a clue as to whether he will do the unthinkable - move his state's contest into this year.

In New Hampshire, where pride in the state's first-primary status is close to a religion, there has been widespread support for Gardner. But even some Granite State political leaders are beginning to express concern.

"If he makes the wrong decision, that's the end of the primary," said former state Democratic party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan. "If he makes the right decision, great, we're good for another four years."

In an interview with The Associated Press, the soft-spoken Gardner said he couldn't say when he'll set the date since some other states haven't made their decisions. Gardner, by state law, must make New Hampshire first.

Not everyone is buying that.

"I think he's being terribly irresponsible to be waiting so long to do what he's going to do," says Don Fowler, a former national Democratic chairman. "He knows what his law is, and if he sets his date and someone trumps him, he can change again."

But Gardner, who sees his mission as fending off other states every four years, has never changed a primary date after setting it and doesn't intend to with this primary, his ninth.

Gardner has felt pressure in other years, most recently in 2000, when he shocked the political world by scheduling the primary a week earlier than anyone expected, just one day after Iowa's already scheduled leadoff presidential caucuses. He soon found himself at a meeting with then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and a half-dozen other officials.

"One by one, they told me why it was the wrong date. The last one to speak was the governor," he recalled.

Gardner wouldn't budge. Iowa moved its date.

Gardner is a New Hampshire native who earned a degree in zoology at the University of Hampshire in 1970 - an interest kindled by his grandfather's chickens. He was living in Manchester, where he still lives, finishing a master's degree in history when he was elected to New Hampshire's 400-member House two years later.

In 1976, the Republican-dominated Legislature elected Gardner, then 28, secretary of state. The first Democrat to hold the office in 50 years, he has won re-election every two years since with support from both parties.

His two passions in life are history and making sure that, at least in New Hampshire, the presidential candidates with the most fame or money don't squeeze out the unknowns. He cites Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who got more support than any other candidate in the Iowa caucuses except undecided, won an upset in New Hampshire and went on to win the presidency in 1976.

To Gardner, the primary is about giving anyone who pays the $1,000 filing fee a chance to connect with voters.

"It keeps the dream alive that anyone can grow up here (in the United States) and be president," Gardner said.

With the first votes in the 2008 nominating contests only a few months away - if that - many want Gardner to stop dreaming and act. That feeling is especially strong in Iowa, which can't make a firm commitment on the dates for its caucuses - traditionally the first nominating contests - until Gardner acts.

"The bottom line is, I don't know what the benefit is for him not to make a decision. No matter what happens, Iowa is going to be the first in the nation, period," said Ray Hoffman, Iowa's state Republican chairman.

Few in New Hampshire, however, are pressuring Gardner. Said Gov. John Lynch: "I trust him completely."