CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- New Hampshire set its earliest-ever presidential primary on Wednesday, deciding on Jan. 8 and claiming its traditional spot as the nation's first in a nomination season pushed almost to New Year's Day of the election year.
The decision ends months of speculation, including the possibility that the state might actually move its primary into December to keep its spot at the head of the line. Iowa, which chooses delegates with a caucus system, begins five days earlier on Jan. 3.
New Hampshire primaries often have shaped presidential contests - sometimes dramatically - for nearly a century. Next year's early date, less than seven weeks from now, resulted from states around the country scheduling their own early primaries and caucuses to attract candidates before the major party nominees are chosen. As a result, both the Democratic and Republican nominees are likely to be effectively known by Feb. 5, when 22 states vote, if not earlier.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner set New Hampshire's date hours after Michigan's Supreme Court said that state's primary could go forward as scheduled on Jan. 15, ending a court battle. New Hampshire waited to make sure Michigan wouldn't schedule caucuses even earlier.
Iowa's caucuses have led the schedule for several decades, but New Hampshire has had the initial primary for much longer.
"This tradition has served our nation well, as decades of candidates and presidents have said," Gardner said.
By letting New Hampshire follow Iowa, Gardner left intact the traditional one-two-punch that the two states wield in presidential politics. On the Democratic side, keeping Iowa first is good news for Barack Obama and John Edwards, who are in a virtual tie with Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state but trails her in New Hampshire and elsewhere. Republican Mike Huckabee, who is inching up on Mitt Romney, is also counting on a strong showing in Iowa to catapult him into contention in other states where he trails.
New Hampshire stands to lose half of its delegates to the Republican convention, reducing the number to 12, because it moved earlier than party rules allow. But state officials are not concerned, considering it a small price to pay for the attention New Hampshire gets from its leadoff spot. Democratic rules allow New Hampshire to hold an early primary, so the state will keep all of its 30 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Candidates have been campaigning hard in New Hampshire under the assumption that the state would vote on the parties' nominees early in the primary season. While several campaigns already have been advertising in the state, others were saving their money until they knew officially when the primary would be held.
The Iowa caucuses will start the nominating process on Jan. 3. Wyoming GOP county caucuses follow on Jan. 5, followed by New Hampshire on Jan. 8 and Michigan on Jan. 15. South Carolina Republicans and Nevada will vote on Jan. 19, South Carolina Democrats on Jan. 26 and Florida on Jan. 29.
Both parties plan to penalize the states voting before Feb. 5 if their contests are binding; that includes Michigan.
Iowa and New Hampshire, two small, predominantly white states, traditionally hold disproportionate influence in presidential politics because of the enormous publicity their early contests get. Democrats tried to leaven the mix this time by adding early contests in Nevada and South Carolina, but Iowa and New Hampshire moved even earlier.
Gardner and other defenders of New Hampshire say the country - and the candidates - are well-served because the primary requires close contact with voters, not just a big advertising budget and name-recognition. Gardner also insists that New Hampshire has a uniquely probing and democratic political culture, of which the primary - a progressive reform when it began in 1916 - is part.
He had been prepared to schedule the primary in December if necessary, a possibility that might have benefited Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner nationally and in the state, by giving her opponents less time to catch up.
A December vote might similarly have benefited Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who leads Republicans in New Hampshire. He welcomed the Jan. 8 decision and immediately challenged the Republican National Committee's effort to punish states that defy party rules on the calendar.
"I will work to ensure that all New Hampshire's delegates are seated at the convention," he said.
The campaign of Republican John McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, used the announcement to send out an appeal for campaign donations, saying, "We have less than seven weeks to make sure that we are able to reach every voter in New Hampshire with John McCain's message of courageous service, experienced leadership and bold solutions."
There had been concern that a December date would alienate everyone, dooming the primary after 2008.
Jan. 8 also has drawbacks. It's only five days after Iowa, instead of the usual eight, and voters will be absorbed by the holidays in two of the three preceding weeks. In 2004, the primary was Jan. 27.
Though the New Hampshire primary has long been the nation's first, no one outside the state paid much attention until 1952 when ballots started listing candidates rather than convention delegates. That year, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver upset Democratic President Harry Truman - Truman soon left the race - and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, recently retired from the Army, won the Republican primary.
Earlier Wednesday in Michigan, the state Supreme Court allowed both the Democrats and Republicans to hold their primary on Jan. 15. The court's 4-3 decision overturned lower court rulings that said the law setting up the primary was unconstitutional because it would let the state political parties keep track of voters' names and whether they took Democratic or GOP primary ballots but withhold that information from the public.
By holding its primary so early - in violation of the national parties' rules - Michigan stands to lose half of its delegates to the Republican National Convention, reducing the number to 30, and all of its 156 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.