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Jon Huntsman to boycott Las Vegas debate over caucus timing

GOP debate

Charlie Neibergall / AP

Republican presidential candidate and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman speaks during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at Cy Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011.

WASHINGTON - Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who almost didn’t make the cut for next week's CNN debate in Las Vegas because of low poll numbers, announced Friday morning he planned to boycott the debate in an extension of his protest against Nevada’s chosen caucus date.

"Next Tuesday, Governor Huntsman will boycott the Nevada presidential debate, and instead hold a 'First-in-the-Nation' Town Hall Meeting in New Hampshire, to discuss his bold plans to create jobs and reform America's foreign policy for the 21st Century,” Huntsman campaign manager Matt David said in a statement.

"While Mitt Romney's campaign has tried to game the system by encouraging Nevada to move to an earlier date, Governor Huntsman is sticking up for the Granite State,” he continued. “We call on all other campaigns to join us, avoiding typical hypocritical politics by paying lip service to New Hampshire, while campaigning in Nevada.”

This all started late last month, when in the last hours before the Republican National Committee deadline for setting primary and caucus dates, Florida decided to jump the pack, advancing its primary from March 6 to Jan. 31.

That move breaks the RNC’s rules, which dictate that only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina can hold their election contests before March 6 -- and even they can’t schedule a date earlier than February. States that break this rule lose half their delegates to next summer’s national party convention.

Once Florida bucked the system, however, all four designated early states rushed to run even earlier dates to preserve their early status: South Carolina picked Jan. 21, Nevada picked Jan. 14, Iowa picked Jan. 3, and New Hampshire ... well, New Hampshire sat on its hands. And then started complaining that Nevada’s date didn’t comply with their state rules -- so Nevada, though it is not subject to the laws of the state of New Hampshire, would have to make a change.

Nevada is not the smallest state of the early pack -- it has as many delegates as Iowa (28) and five more than New Hampshire (23) -- but it’s the only one of the four that has had to endure a boycott and blame for the change.

Part of the vitriol being spewed at Nevada -- and not just by Huntsman; Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum also issued scathing criticisms of the Silver State Thursday and firmly pledged to boycott the party caucuses -- is actually aimed at the front-runner, Mitt Romney, who has been accused of lobbying the Nevada GOP to move the caucus earlier.

An earlier caucus likely favors Romney, since he has the best-laid ground operation in the state. Huntsman, Gingrich and Santorum, on the other hand, have no ground operation to speak of in Nevada.

His campaign has vehemently denied the allegations, and pledged to come to Nevada as planned.

“Governor Romney is competing in every other nominating contest across the country -- whenever they are scheduled,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said Thursday. “It is up to each state to determine the date of their primary or caucus, and Gov. Romney has consistently supported Nevada’s status as an early nominating contest that follows New Hampshire.”

Ron Paul, who came in second in the state, also pledged not to boycott.

“This talk of boycotts doesn’t serve the electoral process any more than the states’ jockeying for position and primacy,” Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton said in a statement Thursday. “New Hampshire deserves its rightful place as the first primary in the nation, but we will fight to preserve that place without depriving Nevada voters of their say in the 2012 nomination.”

Rick Perry, who’s already been endorsed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, also declined to join the boycotting candidates.

“Gov. Perry respects and supports the long tradition of New Hampshire having the first primary in the nation. The movement of early primaries and caucuses has pitted states against each other and will only hurt the political process,” said Perry campaign manager Rob Johnson, also in a statement. “Gov. Perry will actively and vigorously campaign in every state.”

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