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Bill Gardner a New Hampshire institution

On Bill Gardner's desk one day last week rested a column from a Las Vegas newspaper lamenting the imminent "surrender" of Nevada Republicans in their effort to move the state closer to the front of the presidential nominating calendar.

They had surrendered to the man behind the desk, the 63-year-old New Hampshire secretary of state, who had stared down Nevada to the surprise of no one who has watched him wield tremendous clout in the process of choosing a president.

Written on top of the page, and circled for emphasis, was another term in the column: "King Bill."

Next week, Gardner is expected to announce that New Hampshire, having brushed back Nevada's move for prominence, will hold its presidential primary Jan. 10, cementing the order of nominating contests that for the 24th straight cycle has no state's primary coming before New Hampshire's.

Nevada moved back to Feb. 4, weeks after it had hoped to make its debut.

Maintaining the first-in-the-nation role has proved a more challenging task every four years, but Nevada's decision marked another victory for New Hampshire voters, and for the unassuming Gardner as the guardian of their tradition.

This time around, Gardner's legend went digital, with the launch on Twitter of "#billgardnerfacts" — a stream of jokes about a man whose first job was an "egg and paper route," delivering newspapers and eggs to his Manchester neighbors.

"Bill Gardner doesn't watch weather forecasts. He tells it when to snow," offered one.

Gardner, in the job since 1976, quite literally wrote the book on his state's primary: "Why New Hampshire?" — penned jointly with the late Gov. Hugh Gregg, a Republican who'd long been his partner in the primary fights.

Why New Hampshire? Gardner argues the state offers candidates an opportunity few others could.

"It's giving the little guy a chance. You don't have to spend the most money or have the biggest name; you can win here," he said in an interview.

On the walls of his outer office are photo displays representing each presidential primary and the candidates who ran — both famous and obscure. The newest set includes a photo that Gardner makes a point of noting. It shows Barack Obama arriving in New Hampshire for the first time as a candidate, alone and carrying his own bag.

It was Gardner's threat this year to move the primary into December that again put him at the center of the latest calendar battle. Party leaders had, as usual, mapped out a tentative calendar, beginning with Iowa's caucuses Feb. 6 and New Hampshire's primary Feb. 14, followed by the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary.

But Florida leapfrogged ahead to late January, pushing South Carolina to move up. Nevada announced it would move to Jan. 14, and Iowa moved to Jan. 3. The combination made it impossible for New Hampshire to follow its law requiring its contest to be one week ahead of the nearest similar election, and its tradition of following eight days after Iowa. Gardner let it be known that the first votes of the 2012 race might move to early December 2011.

"I haven't seen [pettiness] like that since I was around high school girls," said former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a member of the executive committee of the Nevada GOP. "We're in a national presidential election, and he throws a hissy fit instead of just helping work things out."

But Gardner had allies. State Republicans worked with Republican National Committee leaders to find a solution. Meanwhile several candidates — mainly those trailing in the GOP race and trying to curry favor here — said they would boycott Nevada if it did not move out of New Hampshire's way.

Even Mitt Romney, whose campaign favored the earlier Nevada contest but had to mind its front-runner status in New Hampshire, said, "I take my cues from Bill Gardner." Shortly after, Nevada surrendered.

To those in New Hampshire, Gardner had again saved the day.

"Every four years he gets tested — we get tested," said New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, who has known Gardner since they entered Democratic politics in the 1970s. "Many of us see just part of the board. And he sees the entire chessboard, which is why we trust him to do the right thing."

Gardner has maintained throughout that he's simply following the state law.

"Yeah, well, he wrote it," said Judd Gregg, a former U.S. senator and governor and Hugh Gregg's son. "He's very mild-mannered, but he is in absolute control of the process, and that's because everyone knows that he knows more about it than anyone else."

While fighting over the calendar, Gardner has also taken part in another quadrennial tradition: the two-week period in which candidates file for the ballot. For those who come to his office to do so, the process is as much about Gardner as them.

As Romney filed his paperwork Monday, he joked to supporter and former Gov. John Sununu that maybe he'd like to file for office too.

"I don't do anything Bill Gardner doesn't tell me to do," Sununu replied.

For his public demonstrations of modesty, Gardner is keenly aware of his persona outside his home state. With the Nevada vote imminent, Gardner was approached to discuss the likely result. But he begged off in fear of how he would be portrayed — as declaring victory.

When he did issue a statement, it said simply that "New Hampshire respects the decision," and that "New Hampshire will make its decision soon."

Of course, he is "New Hampshire," and he plans to announce his decision next week.

The question of how much longer Gardner, and through him New Hampshire, will hold this clout is one that concerns the state.

"Without my father and without Bill, you lose the people who really had an intensity of commitment to making sure … that we were always ahead of the game," Judd Gregg said.

"We have logical successors as secretary of state," Gregg said. But not, he said, "on the issue of the primary."

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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