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Florida Republican leaders push for early 2012 presidential primary date, despite threat from RNC

Here's something new for Florida: hold an election on a Thursday or a Saturday.

That prospect looks more and more likely as Florida Republican leaders look to schedule the 2012 presidential primary early enough to ensure the state is crucial in picking the Republican nominee but late enough to avoid wreaking utter havoc on the national primary schedule.

Nothing is decided and may not be for months, but Republican leaders are leaning toward scheduling the presidential primary for Thursday, March 1, Friday, March 2, or Saturday, March 3, 2012. That would make it the fifth nominating contest — after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — but would still run afoul of rules set by the Republican National Committee.

"I think that's where it will end up,'' Gov. Rick Scott said, referring to those first few days in March.

Both national parties struggle to keep the national nominating schedule from imploding as state after state tries to move earlier than the next to have more say in picking the presidential nominee.

Typically, the later the primary the less influence a state has in the nomination.

Under rules set by both national parties, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are the only states allowed to hold primaries or caucuses in February and no other state can hold a nominating election before March 6, which is likely to be a "Super Tuesday" with multiple contests.

"If we do it on that Thursday (March 1) or that Saturday (March 3), that would show respect for the RNC rules and those first four historic or semi-historic early states and also ... allow us to go before other states because Florida is that important,'' said Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, hopeful that the RNC will cut Florida some slack.

Don't count on it, says the RNC.

"The Republican Party rules are clear. With the exception of the four carve-out states, any state that holds a binding primary, caucus or convention prior to March 6, 2012, will be in violation," said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.

The rules unanimously approved by RNC members last August — including Florida members — mandate that any state that busts the March 6 window will lose half its delegates.

For Florida, host of the 2012 Republican National Convention, that would mean instead of roughly 110 die-hard Republicans wearing funny hats and celebrating at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa — the state could only send 55 delegates.

"I think we should have it as early as we can but avoid the penalty,'' said Nancy Riley, Republican state committeewoman from Pinellas County. "We're having the convention in Florida, we're going to be showcased and very important. Instead of people wondering what's going to happen — are they going to seat all the delegates or not — I think it's much better that we follow the rules and keep all our delegates."

But there is little or no appetite from elected Republican leaders to schedule a primary where Florida would be bunched among numerous other states. Their consensus is that a penalty from the RNC is more than worth Florida being front and center in the presidential primary.

"We can't let the interests of a few party delegates override the fourth-largest state's role in selecting the next president,'' said Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, adding that an early Florida primary would benefit Republicans across America. "A large diverse state like Florida early in the process is a more meaningful test of the candidates' strength than any of the other early states."

Under current state law, the primary is scheduled for Jan. 31, but that's expected to change. The Legislature agreed this spring to create a still-unformed committee that will set Florida's presidential primary date by Oct. 1.

"We're a diverse state. We reflect what I think is the demographics of the country, and we should be a player. And so I think we will be a player. It'll just come down to what the specific date is, but we're talking about that,'' said state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Plenty of factors could push Florida's primary earlier than March, including other states setting early primaries. Several, including Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and Wyoming, have been looking at that option.

Meanwhile, the four sanctioned early states are warily eying Florida and will wait until the last minute to schedule their nominating contests.

"The South Carolina Republican Party has every expectation that Florida will follow the RNC rules that each state, including Florida, agreed to following two years of debate. Regardless, South Carolina will host the 'First in the South Republican Party Primary' as we've done every cycle since 1980," said Matt Moore, executive director of the South Carolina GOP, whose primary is tentatively set for Feb. 28.

Meanwhile, Florida Democrats, who in 2008 had all their delegates stripped away for breaking the party's schedule, want nothing to do with an "illegal" primary earlier than March 6.

The stakes for Democrats are minimal because President Barack Obama is sure to be their nominee, but they still need a system for picking delegates. If Florida Republicans schedule a primary earlier than March 6, the Democratic Party will ignore that election and instead hold county caucuses in April and May to start their delegate selection process.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at Times staff writer Becky Bowers contributed to this report.

Florida Republican leaders push for early 2012 presidential primary date, despite threat from RNC 07/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 10:34pm]
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