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Why Jon Huntsman will boycott the GOP debate tonight

Tired of waiting for New Hampshire to make a decision, the Iowa Republican Party has gone ahead and set a date: The 2012 Iowa GOP caucuses will be held on January 3.

That leaves open the possibility (unlikely as we believe it to be) that New Hampshire could actually usurp Iowa’s customary first-in-the-nation status.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner has been threatening to set a mid-December date for the New Hampshire primary ever since Nevada moved its caucuses up to January 14. (Nevada, for its part, moved after Florida moved its date up to January 31, which then prompted South Carolina to reschedule its primary for January 28. Got all that?)

Here’s why. With Iowa’s caucuses now officially scheduled (as expected) for January 3, New Hampshire would have to hold its primary just one week later on January 10, only to be abruptly followed just four days after that by Nevada. New Hampshirites apparently feel that this might rob the Granite State of some of its stand-alone importance – and so the state is threatening to upend the whole process and move its primary to mid-December.

In a massive show of sucking up support for New Hampshire, several GOP candidates – Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain – have threatened to boycott the Nevada caucuses if the state doesn’t change its date. Huntsman and Santorum went so far as to pull out of tonight’s CNN debate, held in Las Vegas. (Of course, none of these candidates are believed to have much of a shot in Nevada, anyway.) And New Hampshire Republicans are pressuring Mitt Romney – who has a lead in the Silver State, which he won in 2008 and which is home to a sizeable Mormon population – to boycott Nevada as well. So far Romney has resisted.

But even if Nevada stays put, we are skeptical about the likelihood that New Hampshire will really follow through on its pre-Christmas-voting threat. For one thing, there’s big money at stake. Every four years, when thousands of reporters, campaign staffers, and other related parties descend on tiny places like Nashua, N.H., they bring a flood of cash to local businesses – from hotels to restaurants to gas stations. Why would the state want to deny itself a few extra weeks of good revenue?

Plus, there’s the fact that this happens every electoral cycle. Seriously – even as we write this post, we can hear the strains of “I’ve got you, babe,” since we’re pretty sure we wrote something exactly like this four and even eight years ago. (How, exactly, is this different from 2008 – when, after a comparable amount of moving dates and one-upmanship, the Iowa caucuses were eventually held on January 3, the New Hampshire primary on January 8, the Michigan primary on January 15, Nevada and South Carolina on January 19, Hawaii on January 25, and Florida on January 29?)

Calendar chaos has become a standard feature of the election process – and while there’s always plenty of hand-wringing and lamenting about the downsides of a frontloaded process, no one has figured out a way to change it.

Want to get involved?

If you don’t live in one of the early-voting states, but do live within driving distance of one – particularly Iowa or New Hampshire – consider a weekend road trip. Plenty of out-of-staters do this, as we’ve discovered over the years. With some planning, you can usually manage to hit a couple different town hall/meet-and-greet type events over the course of a day or two (candidates usually post their schedules on their websites). There’s no better way to get an authentic feel for what the candidates are really like.

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