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Republican primary calendar comes into focus

Republican officials in Florida will decide on Friday whether to hold their primary in late January, a move that could cause the nominating process to start shortly after New Year’s Day.

Florida GOP leaders have indicated that they will set their primary for Jan. 31, leapfrogging the four states the Republican National Committee has permitted to go first. In doing so, the state will be forfeiting half its delegates to the party’s 2012 national convention, which is being held in Tampa.

Florida’s move will probably compel the four states slated to go first — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — to move their contests up to remain at the front of the process.

Florida’s decision is not final, but state House Speaker Dean Cannon (R) said this week that having Florida go fifth is worth whatever punishment the party hands out.

“In the end, it’s far more important to me that the voters of Florida have their voices heard early than that we stringently comply with RNC rules,” Cannon said.

Republican leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire are rebuking the move, and South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly on Thursday called for the RNC to move the convention from Tampa.

“To me, that would be a strong-enough enforcement of the rules that would deter them from doing this and collapsing the calendar,” Connelly said on “ABC News.” “It will be chaos if they pick the date I’m hearing they’re going to pick.”

RNC officials said Thursday that they were still working with the states in hopes of avoiding such a situation. States have until Saturday to tell the RNC when they will hold their primaries and caucuses.

“We’re going to continue working with Florida and other states until the deadline on Oct. 1 to ensure they remain within the party rules,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.

If Florida follows through and sets its primary for Jan. 31, it would probably create an oddly shaped and drawn-out process.

Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina would probably shift forward a month, with Iowa going just after the New Year. After Florida, three or four states would hold caucuses on or around Feb. 7 — Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and possibly Missouri.

Then there would be a three-week gap until the next primaries, on Feb. 28 in Arizona and Michigan, followed by caucuses in Washington state on March 3 and “Super Tuesday” on March 6, when eight states — Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia — are slated to hold their contests.

The RNC will strip half the delegates of any state that holds a primary before March 6, but states can hold caucuses before that date as long as delegates are not selected at them. That means Arizona and Michigan will join Florida in losing half their delegates at the 2012 convention.

So far, no other state has made a similar move — Georgia opted Thursday to go March 6 rather than in February — but there is still time.

Generally, states that want to increase their importance in the process would jump at the opportunity to hold their contest in mid-February, when they could have the attention of all the presidential candidates. But with the deadline to make that switch fast approaching and many states requiring legislative action to do so, that becomes more difficult.

“It’s getting very late for them to do that,” said former Republican National Committee member David Norcross, who drafted the rules to keep states from going early.

If no other state moves its contest up, Norcross and others close to the process said, candidates will be faced with a calendar that could make the Feb. 7 caucuses more important and then leave them three weeks without a contest.

Norcross also said the period after that would be pivotal.

“It gives the candidates three weeks to decide where they want to go and spend their time and money,” he said, “and gives a lot of states time to attract that attention.”

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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