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Florida's 2012 election season will be a wild ride

Election seasons are always unpredictable in Florida, but 2012 is shaping up to be downright crazy.

Consider that state legislative candidates already are opening up fundraising accounts unsure what their districts will look like by the summer of 2012.

Or that the Legislature will kick off its 2012 session in January, two months early, and just as Republican presidential candidates are poised to descend on the Sunshine State for what the national GOP considers to be a rogue primary.

And come August 2012, Republican activists in Florida may be juggling a crowded, high-profile U.S. Senate primary and an even higher-profile Republican National Convention in Tampa.

"No question it's going to be an exciting time in Florida,'' said Florida Republican Party chairman David Bitner, who himself is juggling shifting scenarios ranging from the presidential primary date to how and when new political districts will be drawn.

Some Republicans are even talking about putting redistricting rules back on the ballot in January — or making that presidential primary officially meaningless and later holding party-run caucuses to allocate delegates.

Florida's 2012 cycle revs into full gear this September, when the state Republican Party hosts Presidency 5, a weekend in Orlando featuring a Fox News presidential debate and an officially meaningless but potentially critical presidential straw poll of more than 3,000 Florida Republicans.

The last three men to win Florida's early GOP straw poll went on to win the nomination — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole — and as many as 10,000 activists are expected to attend the event.

But Florida's presidential primary date is sure to remain a source of controversy for months.

Determined to give Florida more influence, the Legislature moved the 2008 primary from March to late January. Under current law, the primary is set for Jan. 31, 2012, even though the national GOP says no state is allowed to hold a primary or caucus before February, and only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are allowed to hold their elections in February.

Legislative leaders insist they have no intention of displacing the historical importance of states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but they are determined to have a significant role in the contest, regardless of penalties. By bucking the national GOP, Florida would lose half of its roughly 110 delegates — a prospect that infuriates many grass-roots activists.

"Florida is the great melting pot of our nation and eventually Florida should move up. But with the 2012 convention ahead of us, and Florida hosting it, this isn't the time to do it. We have so many opportunities, and we shouldn't mess it up by not following the rules,'' said Cindy Graves of Jacksonville, president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women.

Legislative leaders, though, appear unwilling to bend. At best, they say they may delay Florida's primary to February, which would still violate party rules.

"My big goal is that Florida belongs early in that dialogue and we have a default setting and that is at the end of January," House Speaker Dean Cannon said Thursday. "So unless there's a valid reason to change it and a specific plan for that, I think it belongs right where it is."

Republican National Committeeman Paul Senft of Haines City, who served on a committee examining the primary schedule, said there is no mechanism to amend the rules to make an exception for Florida.

Some Republicans have quietly talked about other primary wrinkles: making the January election officially meaningless and holding later caucuses to allocate delegates, and adding to the January ballot a measure to kill or water down the redistricting amendments voters passed last year aimed at ending gerrymandered districts.

"I've heard some Republicans talk about that. It would be adding some clarifying definition language they might want to look at,'' said Senft, doubting that would come to pass.

Cannon also said he doubts that would happen.

Florida Democrats lost all their clout in the 2008 nominating contest by bucking the official calendar and wound up boycotted by presidential candidates. With President Barack Obama running for re-election, the Democratic primary should be low-profile, but the party is still doing what it can to avoid losing delegates. At every opportunity, Democratic chairman Rod Smith has urged the Republican-controlled Legislature to move the date later.

Meanwhile, once-a-decade reapportionment adds another layer of uncertainty. Candidates officially qualify June 18-22, 2012, but Republican legislative leaders don't even plan to finalize districts until just before qualifying.

"The calendar set out by the Senate reapportionment committee is incumbent protection itself,'' said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "They ought to be getting the lines drawn a whole lot sooner so that people know who their candidates are and candidates know what their districts are."

In the most extreme scenario, Florida could hold elections where candidates don't even know what areas they're likely to represent.

Florida's nonpresidential primary for local, state and federal office is scheduled for Aug. 28 — smack in the middle of the national Republican convention in Tampa. GOP chairman Bitner said he expects legislators will reschedule the primary until after the GOP convention and after the Democratic convention the following week in Charlotte, N.C.

In addition to preventing a conflict for many Republicans between the convention and campaigning, it could offer candidates fundraising opportunities with all the deep-pocked party donors gathered in Tampa.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Cannon said no decision has been made.

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Key dates in the 2012 election

Sept. 22-24, 2011: Republican Party of Florida hosts Presidency 5 straw poll and Republican presidential debate in Orlando.

Jan. 10, 2012: Legislative session convenes, two months earlier than usual, to take up redistricting.

Jan. 31, 2012: Florida's scheduled presidential primary.

February 2012: Month RNC has reserved for Iowa caucuses and primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

June 2012: Legislature releases final district lines.

June 18-22, 2012: Federal, state and local candidate qualifying.

Aug. 27-30, 2012: Republican National Convention at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

Aug. 28, 2012: Florida's scheduled primary election.

Sept. 3-6, 2012: Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Nov. 6, 2012: General election.

Florida's 2012 election season will be a wild ride 03/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 9:12am]
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