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Candidates court N.H. voters with Nev. boycott

Second-tier Republican presidential candidates are ramping up pressure on the campaign's frontrunners to join a boycott of the Nevada caucuses in order to help New Hampshire maintain its first-in-the-nation primary.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman—joined by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorumcalled Thursday for a boycott of the Nevada caucus unless the state resolved a primary scheduling conflict with New Hampshire.

Huntsman sought to escalate pressure on heavyweight GOP candidates—namely former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry—by pledging Friday to boycott a CNN debate planned Tuesday in Nevada, the first debate in the southwest, and a forum in a key swing state.

"If you're gonna boycott Nevada, then you boycott the debate," Huntsman told NBC's Jo Ling Kent this morning in New Hampshire, where he'll be holding a town hall Tuesday instead of attending the debate. (Ironically, Huntsman governed neighboring Utah.)

Of the candidates who threatened to skip the caucuses, Gingrich's campaign declined to boycott the debate in a statement Friday afternoon.

The boycott movement comes in response to a threat by New Hampshire officials to move the state's primary into December due to the current configuration of the primary calendar. Iowa has tentatively set its caucus for Jan. 3, and New Hampshire has argued its primary would be unfairly squeezed between the Nevada and Iowa contests. Instead of blaming New Hampshire, or Iowa, for that matter, the candidates are setting their sights on a place they are likely not going to compete. Republican observers have pointed the finger at New Hampshire and its Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has the power to unilaterally set the state’s primary date. They argue New Hampshire could easily hold its primary on Jan. 10th.

The response by candidates has just as much, if not more, to do with their own political interests as it does with preserving the Granite State's status in the primary process.

The Nevada boycott is likely an attempt by second-tier candidates to curry favor with New Hampshire voters, where they take pride in their first-in-the-nation primary. That logic helps explain why someone like Huntsman, who has pinned all his campaign's hopes on winning that primary, and has gone so far as to relocate his campaign headquarters in the state, has sought to lead the charge in terms of a boycott of New Hampshire.

"The fundamental premise is boycotting Nevada...because they are leapfrogging the schedule," Huntsman said in Concord. "And by leapfrogging the schedule, they are compressing the primary season in ways that I think are a disservice to this country, because it is lessening the time people in New Hampshire and therefore people in this country have to learn about the candidates and learn about the issues they are talking about and articulating."

Romney has worked diligently to build up support in the Silver State, one of the smaller contests in the nominating process, but one that Romney believes is key to maintain momentum before a South Carolina primary he’s unlikely to win.

"We stand with New Hampshire all the way. Whatever date they choose for their primary we will abide by and support," Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Friday morning on MSNBC's Daily Rundown. "I think a boycott is counterproductive, because I think the people of Nevada and elsewhere deserve to hear and see the candidates."

Perry has also made a play for Nevada's caucus, attracting an early endorsement from Gov. Brian Sandoval. Campaign manager Rob Johnson told NBC's Carrie Dann Thursday Perry supports New Hampshire's role in the nominating process, but ultimately punted to the Republican National Committee on resolving the conflict.

"Gov. Perry respects and supports the long tradition of New Hampshire having the first primary in the nation," Johnson said. "The movement of early primaries and caucuses has pitted states against each other and will only hurt the political process. Gov. Perry will actively and vigorously campaign in every state. Ultimately, we hope the Republican National Committee will come up with rules that are enforceable and protect the traditional calendar."

(Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, who led the Republican field in this week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, hasn't addressed the issue.)

The demand made by Huntsman, and then the other candidates who have joined the boycott, could have the effect of undercutting the importance of Nevada's caucus, if no resolution can be reached and the caucuses stay on Jan. 14. Political observers say that could be a mistake for Republicans, who have struggled, in particular, with Hispanics, a group prevalent in key general-election states like Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The jockeying is reminiscent of the 2008's Democratic primary battle, when Hillary Clinton decided to make a late play in Michigan's primary, despite the state's move to jump ahead in the calendar, under the threat of having its delegates halved at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton participated in the primary, and won, but her victory didn't provide the momentum it might have had Barack Obama or John Edwards participated, or even had their names on the ballot.