CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire has scheduled its first-in-the-nation presidential primary for Jan. 10, finally giving candidates a concrete calendar after months of uncertainty.
The date, announced Wednesday by Secretary of State Bill Gardner, had been widely expected since Nevada Republicans voted last month to shift their presidential caucuses to early February, ending what had become a bitter standoff among rival states.
Mr. Gardner had warned that Nevada's initial decision to hold its contest in mid-January could force New Hampshire to vote in early December, potentially pushing Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses earlier still.
"I was sort of on the edge of a cliff," Mr. Gardner said. "I was hoping if I had to move, there would be a puddle of water to jump into if necessary."
It's a position Mr. Gardner knows well, though he said this year's wrangling over the date wasn't the worst he's faced by a long-shot - that distinction goes to 1984, when he faced intense pressure from the Democratic National Committee to change the date.
New Hampshire state law requires the primary to be held at least seven days ahead of any other similar contest and gives the secretary of state exclusive power to set the date. That has made Mr. Gardner the target of criticism from other states hoping to grab some of the spotlight.
Critics have argued that New Hampshire is too small and too white to play such a major role in picking presidents, but Mr. Gardner and other defenders of New Hampshire say the country and the candidates are well-served by such a small state, because the primary requires close contact with voters, not just name-recognition or advertising cash.
In fact, thanks to a random drawing, the first candidate listed on Republican ballots will be Joe Story of Jacksonville, Fla., whose website is theaveragejoeforpresident.com. Candidates will be listed alphabetically after him, putting front-runner Mitt Romney nearly at the bottom.
"Really, the election for the candidates begins today," said state Rep. Jim Splaine, Portsmouth Democrat, who authored the state law that puts New Hampshire first.
New Hampshire's decision brings welcome clarity to the path for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. New Hampshire will vote a week after the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, with South Carolina's primary on Jan. 21, Florida's on Jan. 31 and the Nevada caucuses Feb. 4.
Some feared that jockeying states might cram more contests into January, creating an informal national primary that would deprive second-tier candidates of opportunities to regroup and raise money as they raced from state to state. With the calendar set, campaigns can now launch strategies that had been held hostage to an uncertain calendar.