TALLAHASSEE — Look out Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. Republicans in the nation's biggest swing state are preparing to weigh in on their party's presidential nominee as early as fall 2011.
The concept: a non-binding Florida straw poll at a massive event billed as Presidency V, which would also feature a nationally televised presidential debate. The plan, still in its infancy, enjoyed wide support from Republican Party of Florida leaders at its quarterly meeting last weekend.
"It's good for the state, good for the party and will give a real boost to the candidates," said Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican and chairman of the state party.
But, more important for the GOP grass roots, the straw poll would make it easier to undo a thorny problem of the Republican-led Legislature's making: the January 2012 primary election, which would penalize Florida Republicans at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Under national party rules, any state with an early primary like Florida's would lose half their delegates at the convention.
The response from Republicans like incoming U.S. Rep. David Rivera: So what?
Rivera, a Miami Republican who helped make Florida an early primary state when he was a state legislator in 2007, said the delegates and the votes they cast for the nominee at the convention are ceremonious. But, he said, an early primary showcases the state and underscores its importance. Republicans can't win the White House without winning Florida.
"What's important is that Florida should have a real voice," Rivera said.
Democrats aren't as engaged in the discussion this year because of their party's presumed nominee, President Barack Obama.
Republican legislators are split over the idea of an early primary, but opponents say they hope the idea of a noncontroversial straw poll will entice legislators to move the 2012 primary to April — after smaller states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada hold their primaries and caucuses — and avoid facing penalties.
Party leaders say the last time they held a straw poll, in 1995, it was a success, with 3,000 delegates taking part from the 67 counties. Though the details haven't been worked out, the straw poll would likely resemble the Iowa caucus. Party leaders still need to discuss the concept more before deciding on the rules of the straw poll and the venue of Presidency V, which would likely be held in Orlando.
The candidates for Republican Party of Florida chair all support a straw poll, but differ over the early primary.
Joe Gruters, Sarasota County Republican chairman, and Dave Bitner, Jefferson County state committeeman, support it. Opposed: Pinellas County committeeman Tony DiMatteo, Hillsborough County Chairwoman Debbie Cox-Roush and Palm B6each County Chairman Sid Dinerstein.
The primary fight is fraught with political complications for the five candidates, who face a split between the party's political elite and the grass roots activists.
An early primary raises the stature of top lawmakers and helps consultants earn big bucks from television ads, polls, mailers and bus trips. In 2008 — the first early primary — the top presidential contenders spent at least $20 million in a few weeks, consultants say.
Gov. Charlie Crist, who pushed for the early primary, parlayed it into a surprise endorsement of John McCain, who ultimately won the national party's nomination. McCain stopped just short of naming Crist, who catapulted into the national spotlight, as a running mate contender.
All the high-level campaigning in a big primary, however, can sideline grass roots activists. Many of them are often tapped to become convention delegates, which could number 120 in 2012. If half can't sit on the floor because of penalties, it's a recipe for party unrest.
"It might not make a difference to some, but losing a seat at the convention as a delegate makes a difference to the Republican grass roots who work in the trenches," said Paul Senft, Florida's national committeeman.
For moving the date up in 2008, Florida's GOP delegation was deprived of half its voting strength at the convention in Minnesota, although all the delegates were allowed on the floor.
The Democrats were facing similar penalities in Denver, but their national party leaders relented and restored their full voting authority in the end.
Senft said the straw poll will raise the state's profile and engage the grass roots, who need to be courted by the presidential contenders at the local level to win.
Senft said the early primary is a problem because it could lead to a one-day nationwide primary. And that would leave little time to vet candidates, or give highly qualified but little-known candidates a shot at winning, he said.
He hasn't spoken to legislators about moving the primary yet, he said.
House Speaker Dean Cannon said he's neutral. Thrasher is opposed and wants the law changed, but he's not ready to sponsor legislation to do it. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, though, likes the early primary concept, as does the chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.
"My inclination is to let Floridians lead the nation and be influential," said Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. "I don't see too much of a downside for our state."
Marc Caputo can be reached at [email protected]