Uncertain 2012 primary calendar creates chaos for Republican leaders

In an otherwise obedient Republican Party, these are the problem children:

Officials from a handful of states, including Arizona, Florida and Michigan, who are plotting to hold their 2012 presidential primaries or caucuses earlier than the GOP’s new rules permit so they can make their states more relevant in the nominating contest.

This has created a potentially chaotic primary calendar that seems increasingly likely to start with the Iowa caucuses in early January, a month before planned, and complicates the strategies of the presidential candidates.

The fluidity has alarmed Republican National Committee leaders, who established new rules last year specifically to prevent the kind of rush to the front that plagued the 2008 calendar. At the RNC’s summer meeting here this week, party officials outlined stiff penalties for states defying the rules, but officials from some of those states said the rewards still outweigh the risks. On Thursday, the RNC tabled a proposal that would have been a largely symbolic threat.

“There’s this calendar creep of everybody wanting to move forward,” said Missouri Republican Party Chairman David Cole.

Missouri plans to hold its primary March 6, which is shaping up as this cycle’s Super Tuesday. Nearly a dozen states, and perhaps more, are expected to have their primaries or caucuses on that date — the earliest permitted under the RNC rules following the four so-called carve-out states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

In an interview, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said that the calendar rules are designed to allow “a little bit more time for candidates to get their message out to states around the country before we have an avalanche of states, in essence a national primary.”

Although no state is openly challenging the monopoly Iowa and New Hampshire hold with the first caucus and first primary, several states are jockeying to hold their contests soon thereafter. Officials from Florida, Arizona and Michigan want to play a prominent role in picking the party’s nominee, believing that campaigns would air advertisements and build political organizations that could benefit Republicans there in future election cycles.

“You go early, you get a presidential debate, your interests are heard,” said Saul Anuzis, an RNC member from Michigan. The penalties, he said, are “worth it. If states do not have a chance to be relevant in the system, they have no incentive to follow the rules of the process.”

Michigan has scheduled its primary for Feb. 28, while Arizona and Florida are said to be considering Jan. 31. If those dates hold, that would push Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to hold their contests earlier — perhaps into late 2011.

“If we have to ‘trick-or-treat’ for the election, we’ll be the first in the South,” said Chad Connelly, South Carolina’s Republican Party chairman.

“Most Iowans don’t want a knock on the door from a candidate on Christmas Eve,” said Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn, whose state’s caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 6 but could be moved far earlier.

“There’s an uncertainty now,” Strawn said. “Campaigns need to make strategic resource decisions, and the more certainty we can provide them on the calendar, the better.”

A condensed early calendar could benefit former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has the money and national organization to compete across many states. But it would put others at a disadvantage: his challengers, who are counting on early wins to provide momentum, as well as a possible late entrant, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

“If you jam all of these primaries into January, you don’t give people who win these primaries enough time to reload and move on,” said Jack Kimball, New Hampshire’s Republican Party chairman .

Officials from the four early states are in close coordination. Strawn flew to New Hampshire recently to meet with Secretary of State William M. Gardner, who will set his state’s date. At this week’s meeting in Tampa, Kimball was walking around with Connelly. Both men had sharp words for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who is leading Arizona’s push for an early primary.

“I think she would understand the rules, since she just enforced an immigration rule against the federal government,” Connelly said. “It would be consistent for her to enforce these rules as well.”

Added Kimball: “Under that premise, you’d also presume that Republican Party rules and regs would also be important.”

According to RNC rules, states that hold contests before March 6 would be stripped of half their delegates to the nominating convention in Tampa. Also, the RNC could strip offending delegates of their VIP guest passes and privileges at the Tampa convention site and banish them to inferior hotels and poor seats.

RNC members care deeply about convention perks, and the issue sparked heated debate here Thursday. Georgia Republican Party Chairman Sue Everhart said that in 2008, the party did not sufficiently punish Florida, which had violated rules by holding an early primary. At the convention in St. Paul, Minn., it was the Georgia delegation stuck with a “hotel out in Timbuktu,” Everhart said.

“If this body has a rule and I follow it, my delegation will not” be punished, she said at the meeting.

Later, Everhart told reporters that Georgia just might stage an early primary itself — even if it means violating the rules.

“If everybody comes out of the chute early,” she said, “we will, too.”

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