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Huntsman to boycott presidential debate in Nevada

By Mark Preston, CNN Senior Political Editor
October 18, 2011 -- Updated 1009 GMT (1809 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN/Western Republican Presidential Debate set for Tuesday in Nevada
  • GOP candidate Jon Huntsman says he will boycott Nevada debate
  • Campaign says former Utah governor to focus on New Hampshire instead
  • Mitt Romney leads in New Hampshire polls, also sees state as crucial to winning GOP nod

Las Vegas (CNN) -- Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman said Friday he was skipping next week's CNN/Western Republican Presidential Debate out of deference to New Hampshire, which is locked in a political scheduling fight with Nevada.

Huntsman will instead hold a campaign event Tuesday morning in New Hampshire, while his seven rivals for the GOP presidential nomination prepare to face off in the debate in Las Vegas. The Western Republican Leadership Conference and CNN are co-sponsoring the event.

"Next Tuesday, Gov. Huntsman will boycott the Nevada presidential debate, and instead hold a 'First-in-the-Nation' Town Hall Meeting in New Hampshire, to discuss his bold plans to create jobs and reform America's foreign policy for the 21st century," Huntsman campaign manager Matt David said in a statement.

Huntsman's show of loyalty comes 24 hours after announcing he would boycott the Nevada caucuses unless state GOP officials moved the date of their January 14 contest to later in the month to accommodate New Hampshire law. The law requires that New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary be held at least one week before a similar contest, and New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner has said the Nevada caucuses are similar events.

Add Iowa to the mix, in its role as the first-in-the-nation caucus state, and Republicans now face a calendar crunch at the beginning of next year as candidates frantically seek support during the holiday season. And to heighten the intrigue, Gardner has not ruled out scheduling the New Hampshire primary in December to ensure it keeps its treasured status.

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So far, Nevada has refused Gardner's request to move the caucuses to help him abide by his state's law. Iowa has not officially scheduled its caucuses, but it is widely expected they will be held on January 3.

Other GOP presidential candidates have also said they will not campaign in Nevada, but Huntsman has taken the boldest step by skipping a nationally televised debate to demonstrate his allegiance to New Hampshire voters. It is another sign the former Utah governor is focusing his campaign on victory in New Hampshire, a make-or-break contest for him in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

Huntsman is polling in the low single digits, and so far he has been unable to break out of the pack much in the way Herman Cain has done in recent weeks. Huntsman has been hurt in part by his brand of centrist GOP politics, which does not fit well with the more conservative Republican base who play an important role in helping choose the nominee. That is why Huntsman is focusing on New Hampshire, which propelled John McCain to the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

"New Hampshire plays a vital role in our nominating system in that -- unlike any other primary -- it gives voters the opportunity to engage substantively with the candidates on the myriad issues facing our country," Huntsman spokesman David said.

The jockeying by states to be one of the first to vote in the presidential primary is not new, and both the Republican and Democratic national committees have struggled on how to implement a fair and orderly schedule to the primary calendar.

Iowa and New Hampshire have carved out unique and important roles as the first two states to hold nominating contests -- much to the chagrin of other states that say those two wield too much power. But rooted tradition, high interest by voters and the fact that each state is small enough for candidates financially to stage a campaign effort has helped Iowa and New Hampshire solidify their roles in Republican and Democratic presidential politics.

But in 2008, Nevada was granted this elite early voting status by the Democratic National Committee because of its high Hispanic population, large number of union households and the influence of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. Republicans followed the Democratic lead in 2008 by holding early caucuses, but the GOP contests were not a factor in helping choose the party nominee.

South Carolina is the fourth leg of the primary calendar stool and is protective of its role as the first-in-the-South presidential primary. That contest will be held on January 21.

Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada were originally set to hold caucuses and primaries in February, but Florida's decision to move its primary date up to January 31 triggered the four others to push their nominating contests back into January -- perhaps even December.

While Iowa will not penalized, the other four states will all be out of compliance with Republican National Committee rules and will face sanctions such as the loss of delegates and perks at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. But it is highly unlikely any GOP nominee would not make accommodations for any state that breaks RNC rules, certainly Florida which is hosting the convention.

GOP presidential canididate Jon Huntsman addresses a town-hall style meeting this week in Hanover, New Hampshire.
GOP presidential canididate Jon Huntsman addresses a town-hall style meeting this week in Hanover, New Hampshire.

On Friday, Huntsman did not blame Florida, as others have, for the calendar chaos but rather sought to put it on rival Mitt Romney, who is accused of prodding Nevada to hold its contest on January 14.

"While Mitt Romney's campaign has tried to game the system by encouraging Nevada to move to an earlier date, Gov. Huntsman is sticking up for the Granite State," David said.

Romney is leading in the New Hampshire polls and like Huntsman sees that state as crucial to his plan to win the nomination. But unlike Huntsman, Romney also is investing in Nevada.

A Romney spokesman, asked to respond to Huntsman's remarks, referred to a previous statement when allegations of influence in Nevada arose.

"Gov. Romney is firmly committed to preserving New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary and the critical role it plays in selecting our Republican nominee," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. "Mitt is running a town-to-town, person-to-person campaign in town halls across the state that honors New Hampshire's important political traditions.

"It is up to each state to determine the date of their primary or caucus. Gov. Romney will compete in every nominating contest across the country, regardless of when they may be scheduled, so long as New Hampshire retains its first-in-the-nation primary status."

Huntsman also called on his fellow candidates to join him in boycotting the debate and "avoiding typical hypocritical politics by paying lip service to New Hampshire, while campaigning in Nevada."

But Rep. Michele Bachmman of Minnesota, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania have said they would appear at the debate despite joining Huntsman in the boycott of the Nevada caucuses.

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