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Mitt: Caught Between Granite And Silver

As predictable as the quadrennial leapfrogging of states in the nominating calendar is the posturing by candidates seeking to favor one state over another -- and the posturing of local political elites toward the candidates they feel are not paying their states sufficient obeisance. The only surprise this time around is that the candidate now catching the most flak from one of the two most sensitive states, New Hampshire, is the one who has spent by far the most time in said state the past few years and pumped the most money into its political bloodstream: Mitt Romney.

Romney is the target of a harsh new editorial in the Union Leader of Manchester -- a paper that, while diminished, still holds sway among Republican voters in New Hampshire -- scolding him for campaigning in Nevada. The Silver State has upset the Granite State by scheduling its caucus for January 14, which means that New Hampshire can schedule its primary for January 10 -- the most logical remaining date, now that Iowa has set its caucus for January 3 -- only if New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner determines that the the Nevada caucus is not substantive enough to violate New Hampshire's self-decreed rule that there be a one-week window between its primary and any "similar event."

Jon Huntsman, who is staking all on New Hampshire, has made a show of boycotting Nevada, even though the state is a natural stronghold for him and Romney, with its large Mormon population. The Union Leader, in full high dudgeon, wants Romney to do the same, going so far as to hint that Romney could lose New Hampshire to an underdog candidate again, as he did to John McCain in 2008, if he doesn't watch his step:

McCain’s 2008 comeback proved the value of New Hampshire’s primary: a presidential nominating contest in which direct interaction with voters trumps multi-million-dollar bank balances. Romney’s campaign bank balance is stronger than his skills at retail politics. Hence, his campaign’s effort to bump the Nevada caucuses ahead of the South Carolina primary, and into conflict with New Hampshire’s primary. Poorer candidates can’t compete in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida at the same time. But Romney can.

Former Nevada Gov. Robert List, a member of the Nevada Republican Party’s executive committee, which this month moved Nevada’s caucus date from Feb. 18 to Jan. 14, told The Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Romney’s people were pushing for us to move into January so that he could get some momentum and have a rising tide going into Florida.” The Romney campaign did not deny it.

What this effort suggests: Romney is willing to sacrifice an institution beneficial to the republic (the New Hampshire primary) for his own political advantage. For the Nevada move weakens all 2012 candidates not named Romney and threatens all future New Hampshire primaries. Whether New Hampshire goes in December or in January with Nevada only a few days behind it, the tradition is broken, and other states will be emboldened to move in for the kill in 2016.

Of course, Romney could put New Hampshire voters’ minds at ease about his commitment to the primary and the value of selecting candidates the old-fashioned way. He could join the Nevada boycott.

Or not. Either way, New Hampshire is watching.

It's hard to overstate the irony in Romney being accused of not bestowing sufficient attention on New Hampshire. As I describe in my piece in the current issue of the magazine, Romney has been courting the state since 2006, doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in PAC contributions to Republican candidates in the state, all the way down to county sheriffs and district attorneys, attending GOP dinners in every corner of the state, showing up at just about every godforsaken small-town parade he's invited to. He's been spending more time at his vacation house in the state's Lakes Region since selling his mansion in the Boston suburbs. And he has locked up the lion's share of the state's Republican establishment, including 15 more state representatives whose endorsement the campaign announced today. What more does the Union Leader want him to do -- strap his body to the crumbled rock face of what was once the Old Man of the Mountain?