Fla. might disrupt presidential primary schedule

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 3:27 AM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In a virtual replay of 2008, Florida is bucking national Democrats and Republicans in planning an early presidential primary, an act of defiance that creates strategic challenges for GOP candidates and could unravel the parties' primary calendar next year.

The added wrinkle this time: The 2012 Republican National Convention is in Tampa. If national Republican leaders make good on their threat to penalize states that don't follow the rules, host delegates could be stopped at the door when the GOP gathers to pick its presidential ticket.

With the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature showing no signs of giving in, other states that want to have a large say early in the nominating process - including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina - are jockeying to stay out in front.

Minnesota Republicans are complicating matters, too. They said they plan to go forward with a nonbinding presidential straw poll on Feb. 7, the day after the Iowa caucuses, and maintain that it doesn't run afoul of national party rules because no delegates will be selected.

Political observers say the outcome of standoffs such as in Florida will help determine whether the political parties can bring order to the primary calendar or whether it becomes a free-for-all.

"It could have a domino effect, just as it did the last time," said Mike Duncan, who chaired the Republican National Committee in 2008 when the major parties struggled to keep states on a primary schedule that followed the rules.

The Republican and Democratic national committees agreed on a schedule that would begin the 2012 nominating process next February, when Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada would hold primaries and caucuses. Other states couldn't hold a primary or caucus before March 6.

However, a 2007 Florida law says that that state's presidential primary must be held on the last Tuesday in January - that's Jan. 31 next year - and only the Republican-controlled Legislature can change it. Its leaders have shown no inclination to accept the national parties' demands and there's a good chance the date will either remain unchanged or perhaps be moved to February. The only legislative proposals to move the date have been filed by Democrats, who are outnumbered by a 2-1 ratio.

Traditional early-primary states don't intend on letting Florida host the nation's first contest. New Hampshire state law requires its primary to be the first in the nation. Iowa and South Carolina are already preparing to move up their dates if Florida doesn't change.

In 1976, Florida actually held the first Southern primary, helping then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter win the Democratic nomination and later the presidency. Over the years, however, Florida's primary remained the second Tuesday in March while other states leapt ahead, rendering the Sunshine State less relevant in the nominating process.

Florida's legislative leaders think the current early primary date makes the state a bigger player in the nominating process. An early primary also attracts candidates and forces them to address issues important to the state, such as the space program, Cuba and Everglades restoration. And when presidential contenders come to Florida, they raise money for local politicians and the state parties - Republicans are already planning a debate tied to the primary they hope will raise millions.

They also know Florida is the biggest swing state in the general election - remember the 2000 presidential recount? - which makes the national parties wary of alienating even a small fraction of voters by playing hardball. It's a bigger concern for the Republicans in 2012 because the GOP is expected to have a hotly contested presidential race while President Barack Obama is not expected to have a serious Democratic challenger.

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