TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republican leaders better hope the 2012 presidential primary doesn't turn into a long, drawn-out slog a la Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama in 2008.
Because in setting Florida's presidential primary for Jan. 31, state leaders on Friday gambled that the Republican contest will be all about momentum rather than a scramble to win enough delegates. If they're wrong, Florida could wind up with less influence on the primary than other states holding later elections.
"This is about getting the most Floridians involved at the earliest possible time," said state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a member of a special committee charged with setting the date.
The move provoked a torrent of anger from party leaders in Iowa and South Carolina, who must now set earlier elections.
"The arrogance shown by Florida's elected leadership is disappointing, but not surprising. Equally troubling is to see this petulant behavior rewarded with our national convention (in Tampa)," said Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn.
Florida Republicans, determined to be the fifth contest, had hoped to set a February primary. When states including Colorado, Missouri and Arizona scheduled February elections, Florida leap-frogged to January.
"Rogue states have once again dictated the presidential nominating calendar," said South Carolina party chairman Chad Connelly. "States who have worked so hard to maintain the nominating calendar should not be penalized and the offenders, including Florida, should lose their entire allocations of delegates at the National Convention."
The Republican National Committee, trying to avert a chaotic and overly compressed schedule, barred all states except Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina from setting primaries or caucuses before March 6. Those that buck the rules lose half their delegates — in Florida's case, 48 of its total 99.
Some prominent Republicans worry Florida may prove to be less of a prize for candidates who don't want to spend the millions it costs to run a statewide election in the Sunshine State.
"Campaigns may ask themselves is Florida really going to be a decider or is this going to be a delegate fight, because there is a magic number you need to hit to win the nomination," said Republican consultant David Johnson of Tallahassee. "We're banking (in Florida) on this being another momentum election, but I could make arguments that going later and keeping the full complement of delegates would be more beneficial."
Most elected officials, though, dismiss the significance of delegates.
"It is indisputable that what matters most in the early primary season is MOMENTUM, not delegates,'' U.S. Rep. David Rivera wrote in an e-mail to party officials Friday. "That is why states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which have minuscule delegates, matter. As in 2008, Florida will provide overwhelming momentum not because of our delegate count, but because (of) Florida's critical role in the November election."
Rivera, 46, may not recall the 1976 primary when Gerald Ford lacked enough delegates to secure the nomination, and only won after a convention floor fight with Ronald Reagan. In 2008, the Democratic primary wasn't locked up until June, as Clinton and Obama fought to pick up every last delegate.
There are a number of new factors this election cycle that could extend the nomination fight:
• New RNC rules, in addition to cutting delegates from states that ignore the sanctioned schedule, dictate that any state holding elections before April will award delegates proportionally, instead of to the popular vote winner. In Florida's case, the bulk of the 48 delegates will be awarded by congressional district, so a candidate winning eight of Florida's 25 districts could wind up with nearly as many delegates as a candidate winning 10 districts.
• A number of states moved their primaries back. California, with 172 delegates, will hold its primary in June rather than February, while New York, with 95 delegates, moves to late April. The changes mean there will be 10 times fewer delegates committed by the end of February 2012 than there were in 2008 — when 1,400 delegates were bound to candidates by that time.
• Court rulings have opened the door for so-called Super PACs, which can raise unlimited money from corporations and other groups. These independent committees could keep campaigns rolling through later contests. Though they can't coordinate with the campaigns, Super PACs are aligned with both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.
In 2008, John McCain all but clinched the nomination when he won Florida's Jan. 29 primary with 37 percent of the vote. It provided a shot of momentum heading into "Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5, when 24 states voted. Romney dropped out days later.
In 2012, though, Super Tuesday comes more than a month after Florida, on March 6, and only about 10 states are expected to vote. A handful of states will vote in February, so momentum from Florida may not mean much.
"If we've got a two-person race and it's evenly matched, then Florida sitting in fifth place probably will end up more predictive than decisive," said Davidson College political scientist Josh Putnam, who writes the FrontloadingHQ blog on primaries.
The current conventional wisdom favors Perry in Iowa and South Carolina, while Romney is favored in New Hampshire and Nevada. Most recent polls show Romney leading in Florida.
Former state Republican Party chair Al Cardenas worries about an extended primary calendar.
One scenario: "No one will have enough delegates to call themselves a winner,'' Cardenas said. "Money will dry up for candidates that don't make headway, but it could be that the primary process still drags on."
The upside is that more candidates will focus on President Obama and call attention to his flaws, and more states will have a say in the nomination. On the other hand, Cardenas said, "the more we deplete our resources, the more it puts us at a competitive disadvantage against Obama in the home stretch."