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Iowa officially sets caucus date for Jan. 3

DES MOINES, Iowa—It’s finally official: The Iowa caucuses will be January 3rd at 8pm ET, the Iowa Republican Party announced tonight following a State Central Committee (SCC) conference call.

"On behalf of over 600,000 Iowa Republicans, I'm excited to announce the first step Iowans will have to replace Barack Obama and his failed presidency will be next January 3 at our First in the Nation Iowa Caucuses," IRP Chairman Matt Strawn said in a statement. "A January 3 date provides certainty to the voters, to our presidential candidates, and to the thousands of statewide volunteers who make the Caucus process a reflection of the very best of our representative democracy."

Typically Iowa waits to set the caucus date until the New Hampshire primary is set, but tonight, the committee voted unanimously to select the first available date in January for the caucus.

“We came to the conclusion that we definitely wanted to have a January start to the process,” State Central Committee member Wes Enos told NBC News. “Setting ourselves on the 3rd we feel protects the sanctity of our caucus and if NH is able to go in January will protect their primary as well because in order to jump the two early states, a state would have to move into December.”

Enos said the committee felt moving into the 2011 calendar year would “diminish the role” of Iowa in the election process and they wanted to stop “this game of leapfrog” by other states by setting the date as early in 2012 as possible.

Chairman Strawn blamed Florida and Nevada in his statement for causing this calendar chaos.

"I will do everything in my power on the RNC to hold Florida accountable for creating this mess, but the culpability for creating a compressed January calendar does not end there,” Strawn said. “The actions of early state newcomer Nevada have also exacerbated this problem and unnecessarily crowded the January calendar. Time remains for Nevada to respect the process, honor tradition and rectify the problem in a way that will restore order to the nomination calendar.”

Iowa's decision puts a kind of implicit pressure on New Hampshire to now act. The state has held out on declaring its primary date out of frustration toward the other states that usually follow New Hampshire for moving their contests up too early.

"That's not going to make me set the date any sooner," said New Hampshire Secretary of State Gardner. "I'm not going to set the date this week."

The game of primary musical chairs was prompted by Florida's decision to schedule its primary Jan. 31, by which they leapfrogged Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, which traditionally hold the first four nominating contests—in that order.

In reaction to Florida's move, South Carolina set its primary for Jan. 21, and Nevada to set its caucuses for Jan. 14.

Nevada's decision, in turn, angered New Hampshire officials, which worried that holding their state's first-in-the-nation primary between Iowa's then-tentative Jan. 3 date and Nevada's caucuses would sandwich New Hampshire in between, and essentially minimize the contest.

Unless Nevada pushes back its caucus, Gardner has threatened to schedule the Granite State's primary as early as Dec. 6. He said he's awaiting the outcome of a meeting in Nevada this weekend.

Candidates who share that worry—and who are trying hard to compete in New Hampshire—last week threatened to boycott Nevada's caucuses unless a satisfactory conclusion were reached. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman led the charge, going so far as to sit out a debate tomorrow night in Las Vegas in favor of holding a town hall in New Hampshire.

But the leading candidate in New Hampshire, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has signaled his intention to compete in both states. He opened his campaign headquarters Monday in Nevada, despite facing some minor pressure from New Hampshire supporters to join the Nevada boycott.

Updated at 10:05 p.m. NBC's Jo Ling Kent contributed from New Hampshire.