Iowa has planned its presidential caucus for Jan. 3, 2012 -- ensuring the Republican primary season will begin just after New Year's Day for only the second time.

The state's Republican leaders agreed on the date Thursday night via conference call. It will not be official until Oct. 16 or 17, when the leaders meet in person, and the party chairman, Matt Strawn, approves it. If it were to be changed, however, it would almost certainly be made earlier, not later.

The only state that has yet to schedule its primary is New Hampshire, which traditionally votes second, after Iowa. But New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner told Politico he would consider scheduling the state's primary before Iowa's caucus this time.

The New Hampshire primary has to be at least seven days before the following primary or caucus, which means if Gardner does try to jump ahead of Iowa, the nominating process would start in December -- an unprecedented prospect. In 2008, Iowa held its caucus Jan. 3 and New Hampshire held its primary Jan. 8, the earliest in its history.

Iowa officials had wanted to postpone the decision this year until after New Hampshire announced its date, so that it could be sure to remain first in the nation. Since it takes more time to arrange a caucus than it does to organize a primary, however, they had no choice but to announce the date and hope for the best from New Hampshire.

Iowa Wants to be First, But Also in 2012

Iowa wants to go first, but we also want to be in 2012, Drew Ivers, a member of the committee that set Iowa's caucus date, told Politico. We want some relevance here.

That is an important point. The primary schedule has real political meaning, and not just in terms of which states vote first and get to set the tone of the race. The sooner the primary season starts and the more front-loaded it is, the less time voters have to vet the candidates before choosing one.

It is not uncommon for a front-runner to falter late in the game and for a lesser-known candidate to win the nomination. But if enough primaries are crammed into January, February, and March, choices are set in stone earlier and there is no opportunity for a last-minute shift.

The trend this year has been decidedly toward a front-loaded schedule. Under Republican National Committee rules, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina are the only four states that are allowed to hold their caucuses or primaries before March 7.

But, last month, Florida announced it would break the rules and hold its primary Jan. 31, and other states scrambled to keep up. To stay ahead of Florida, Nevada and South Carolina then moved their contests to Jan. 14 and Jan. 21, respectively, while Iowa and New Hampshire will hold their competitions even earlier.