CONCORD - The New Hampshire Presidential Primary maintains its lofty position atop the political selection process under proposed GOP changes to the 2016 schedule.
For the first time, say several longtime primary operatives, states that jump to the head of the line face penalties with real teeth.
Under the plan adopted by a subcommittee of the Republican National Committee's Rules Committee, large states would lose all but nine of their delegates to the national nominating convention and states with 30 or fewer delegates would lose all but six if they broke the nominating rules.
The party's attempt to impose order to what has become a chaotic primary selection process - with dates not set until the last minute so states could retain their place in order - still has to win approval of the full Rules Committee and the RNC, which is expected to vote on the plan later this month.
State Committeeman Steve Duprey of Concord, who served on the subcommittee, and has been involved in preserving New Hampshire first-in-the nation status for 20 years, believes the New Hampshire primary is in as good shape as it has been in more than 20 years.
"This is the best balance we have ever achieved," Duprey said. "It has a mix of geography, rural and urban, and candidates with no money and with money. This system works pretty well."
Under the plan, the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary, South Carolina primary and Nevada caucus would take place in February.
The other states and territories would begin primaries and caucuses March 1. For the first two weeks, delegates would have to be allotted proportionally, and after that, winner-take-all contests could be held.
Duprey said that allows the lesser known or underfunded candidates to continue at least through the first six weeks of the schedule.
Longtime National Committeeman Tom Rath of Concord said the new schedule gives New Hampshire the month of January back. The last two primaries were held in January after states jumped the gun and moved their primaries and caucuses ahead of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, the traditional three early states.
"New Hampshire has never been as well protected as it is under the Republican Party right now," Rath said, "and it gives the month of January back, that month after the holidays when you want the candidates here."
He and Duprey said candidates and state parties would have to think long and hard before challenging the sub-committee's proposed schedule.
In the past, the delegations from states that jumped ahead were reduced, but not by the significant numbers now proposed.
Rath said candidates have to spend $15 million to $20 million to win in large states and if they are only going to receive nine delegates at the nominating convention it is not worth it for them.
"Candidates will not want to go into a big state like Florida if they will only get nine delegates," Rath said.
Under the plan, the primaries and caucuses would be over by mid-May. The winning candidate should have the necessary delegates to win nomination at the convention by the beginning of May.
The compressed schedule is not only intended to bring order to the selection process, but also to allow for a June or early July national convention.
Jim Merrill, a senior advisor and general consultant to Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, said an early convention is good.
"There needs to be a balance structure and we can do that," Merrill said. "The last cycle went too far the other way with the convention at the end of August with only two months to the general election."
The early state process allows ample opportunity to vet the candidates, he said, whether they are lesser know or well-funded or not. "They can make their case to voters," he said, "but as Republicans we need to move the convention up and get on with the business of winning the White House."
However, Michael Biundo of Manchester, the national campaign manager for former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Rick Santorum for the 2012 process, said he has some concerns about the new schedule.
He said compressing the schedule could hurt the early states if large states hold primaries at the same time.
"That tends to favor a candidate with more money," Biundo said. "The beauty of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina is you have the ability to turn around and change the direction and allow folks to really get to know the candidate."
The more compressed the schedule, the more the campaigns will be about big ad buys on television and that favors the well-known candidates with money, he said.
"Any time you discourage the underdog stories out of the New Hampshire primary, it makes me a little nervous," Biundo said. "It's important to protect New Hampshire, but I'm worried about front loading this too much."
He believes the goals of bringing order and having an early convention can be accomplished, but more work needs to be done to accomplish it in a way that is fair to everyone.
Former national committeewoman Phyllis Woods of Dover, who served on the rules committee, said the plan does a good job of protecting the New Hampshire primary and has the necessary penalties to keep other states from jumping ahead in the schedule, but she warned it has not received final approval.
"It has a high hurdle," she said. "It has to come back to the full rules committee and then approval from the Republican National Committee by 75 percent."
Duprey acknowledges the plan has a long way to go.
"I'm very hopeful these changes will be adopted," Duprey said. "I like to think (former governor and long-time advocate for the New Hampshire primary) Hugh Gregg would be pleased."