TAMPA — If Florida Republicans think they were treated harshly for moving up their 2012 presidential primary to January, wait until they try something like that in 2016.
Under new rules passed by national party officials Wednesday, Florida Republicans would see their delegates hacked by 90 percent if they leapfrog the GOP's four kickoff contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
That's a far stiffer penalty than what Florida is getting this year. Party leaders cut the state's voting delegates at the Republican National Convention next week in Tampa from 99 to 50 and stripped them of more than 160 guest passes.
During a meeting at the Marriott Waterside, the Republican National Committee Rules Committee voted that future rogue states would have their delegates reduced to nine — the bare minimum required for a state to attend and serve on committees at the national convention.
"Half is not a big enough punishment," said South Carolina delegate Glenn McCall, who made the motion for the more severe penalty. "Obviously it's not, because there are states that still want to take that penalty and move up. So we need to make it really punitive and stick to it."
McCall said that South Carolina felt burned by Florida when it made its primary earlier. South Carolina had to move its primary up so that it could remain the first from the South. But it was punished, too, and its delegates dropped from 50 to 25.
So the committee also passed a measure, offered by a New Hampshire delegate, to not penalize the four "carve-out" states if they are forced to move their primaries or caucuses to an earlier date to beat out a state that jumps ahead on the calendar.
The rule changes must be approved by the full Republican National Committee, which meets today, and by the Convention Rules Committee, which meets Friday. Then it gets voted on during the convention.
Florida delegates like incoming state House Speaker Will Weatherford said he thought this year's penalties were severe enough. But he said he's not sure if it will spark a fight on the convention floor.
"It's too soon to tell," he said.
Wednesday's meeting dwelled mostly on obscure language in party rules, which can date back to the 1860s, but some changes stoked excitement.
John Ryder, a Tennessee delegate, pushed to increase the threshold for a candidate to qualify for nomination at the convention. Currently, party rules require candidates win the majority of delegates from at least five states. Ryder proposed raising that requirement to 10.
But several delegates said this seemed aimed at Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who ran a populist candidacy for president and didn't win the majority of delegates in any state.
"It's just wrong," said Morton Blackwell, a Virginia delegate who heads a libertarian and conservative leadership academy. "Five states is a high-enough threshold."
The committee agreed and rejected increasing the number of states to 10.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or [email protected]