WASHINGTON — The nation’s Republican presidential primary season could be bumping up against New Year’s Day, as states seeking to boost their political clout look to set earlier contests.
Florida’s 2012 Republican presidential primary could be scheduled for as early as Jan. 31, which most likely would prompt the states that traditionally have gone early to move up their own contests. Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon told The St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday that the state's primary date selection committee meets Friday and is likely to choose Jan. 31.
Florida had been looking at an early March date; after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. But other states have suggested that they'll have earlier contests, and Florida lawmakers say they want to ensure that the nation’s largest swing state has a significant say in choosing the Republican presidential nominee. By scheduling a primary that early, Florida could be penalized by the Republican National Committee, which might reduce the number of delegates the state can send to the national convention.
If Florida moves its date, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada would be expected to move up to earlier in January. The Iowa caucuses are now tentatively scheduled for Feb. 6, New Hampshire’s primary for Feb. 14, Nevada’s caucuses for Feb. 18 and South Carolina’s primary for Feb. 28.
All states must submit dates to the RNC by Saturday; Georgia is scheduled to announce a date Thursday.
If Florida moves up, observers suggest, the Iowa caucus — the nation's first nomination voting, by tradition — would be as soon as Jan. 5, followed by New Hampshire five to eight days later. Arizona already has said it will flout the RNC and move its primary to Feb. 28.
Josh Putnam, whose Frontloading HQ blog covers the primary calendar extensively, notes that Florida officials have been consistent about wanting to vote fifth and may be forced into January because Missouri is scheduled for Feb. 7. “To go fifth, Florida will have to be Jan. 31, at the latest,” said Putnam, a visiting assistant professor of political science at North Carolina’s Davidson College. He suggested that it’s unlikely that Florida will decide the nomination because there won't have been enough delegates selected. “It may prove to be predictive, but it will likely not prove decisive,” he said.
An abbreviated schedule could make it difficult for new candidates — such as oft-mentioned New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — to gain traction, said Craig Robinson, the founder of TheIowaRepublican.com website and a former Iowa Republican Party political director.
On paper, moving contests into January favors the candidate with the most name recognition, the most money and the best organization. At the moment, that's former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has a wide lead among New Hampshire Republicans and in the money chase.
"The earlier schedule would tend to help someone like Romney, who has a large head start," said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
In Iowa, where there's been less enthusiasm for Romney and no clear favorite, Robinson suggested that Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum could benefit from an early caucus, since they've been more visible in the state. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, though, would find he had to devote more time to other states quickly, Robinson said.
Some in Iowa were annoyed at Florida’s attempt to crash the calendar, though it did so in 2008.
“It's just so thoughtless of other states to do this," said Steve Scheffler, Iowa Republican national committeeman and the president of the conservative Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Scheffler said confusion over dates meant that the 99 Iowa counties that needed to book sites to hold their caucuses couldn't do so yet.
"There are only so many halls big enough," he said. If smaller sites wind up being used, that could discourage people from coming out in icy winter weather. "We don't want people to be sitting outside."
Few Republican presidential campaigns commented on Florida’s move, though at the Romney camp, senior adviser Tom Rath said they were prepared for virtually any scenario.
"We have organizational strength in the early stages," Rath said.
Florida is a hugely expensive state to campaign in and is considered crucial for Romney; Rath said a strong showing there would be "enormously helpful." Romney starts with a strong base there; he got 31 percent of the 2008 GOP primary vote, losing to Arizona Sen. John McCain, and he's been pushing his support for Social Security hard in the retiree-rich state.
Florida’s potential leapfrog got one unexpected endorsement: Vice President Joe Biden, who told WLRN radio during an interview in Miami that “the big and important states should have a shot to make a difference in the outcome of the nominating process.
"The idea that you render California or Pennsylvania or Florida or Michigan obsolete — that by the time it gets to them it’s all over — I don’t think is representative of what primaries should be about."
Florida Democrats have argued that the state should stick to its March 6 date. The Florida primary was moved up in 2008 by the Republican-led state legislature, resulting in a bitter yearlong dispute and a Democratic presidential-candidate boycott. The Democratic National Committee initially stripped Florida of its delegation to the nominating convention, though the convention later forgave the state and its full slate of delegates was restored.
(Dispatches from The Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times were used in compiling this report.)
Dispatches from The Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times were used in compiling this report.
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