Republicans in the state of South Carolina have announced they will hold their 2008 presidential primary in mid-January. That decision has set off a chain reaction among other states that could result in the first votes in the 2008 presidential campaign taking place before the end of this year. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

South Carolina Republicans announced they will hold their presidential primary on January 19 of next year. South Carolina wants to maintain its traditional role as the first southern state to host a primary after Florida recently moved up its primary to January 29.

South Carolina's decision will have an impact on Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that traditionally host the first presidential caucuses and primary respectively.

State laws in Iowa and New Hampshire require local officials to maintain their first in the nation status with regard to the presidential nominating process. Historically, Iowa has kicked off the presidential selection process in January with its caucuses, followed a week later by the New Hampshire primary.

As a result of South Carolina's move, New Hampshire is now expected to schedule its primary in early January. Iowa officials say if that happens, they could shift their caucus voting to mid-December in order to maintain the traditional order of Iowa voting first, then New Hampshire.

Experts say Iowa and New Hampshire are determined to keep their early voting status, which are often seen as a test of the presidential contenders and their ability to connect with voters.

"They have been a chance for candidates to get on the ground and be hand to hand [personally meet voters] in politics before they move to many other states where the campaign tends to be more media-oriented and running [television] ads, rather than door to door politicians," said John Fortier, an expert on politics at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The schedule change would mark the earliest start ever for the selection process that chooses the two major party's presidential nominees through a series of caucus and primary contests, ending with the national nominating conventions in late August and early September of 2008.

Many other states have already moved up their primary dates for next year in order to have a bigger impact on the nominating process. About 20 states, including California, New York and Illinois, have scheduled primaries for February 5, which looms as a crucial test for all the candidates next year.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he will decide whether to join the Republican presidential field by October. Gingrich says most Americans traditionally do not begin to follow the presidential campaign until after New Year's Day.

"For the American people, for the average, normal, hard-working tax-paying American, this election begins after Christmas, no matter what the news media have to cover," said Gingrich

Officials in Iowa say they will select a date for their caucuses once New Hampshire sets a date for its primary. Those decisions may not come for several more weeks.