The latest polls show a dead heat between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in Florida, but when the presidential primary votes are counted Tuesday only one will lay claim to the 50 Florida delegates to the GOP national convention in Tampa.
So what? Well, ultimately the primary season is a contest for who can secure the 1,144 delegates required to win the nomination. If Gingrich and Romney continue the way they're going, the race could be a drawn-out fight for every last delegate.
That in turn could lead to an unlikely but entirely plausible nightmare for the Republican National Committee — with Florida once again being at the center of a bitter vote counting dispute.
The question boils down to this: Did the RNC properly allow the Republican Party of Florida to decree its primary a winner-take-all contest for Florida delegates? Or should Florida's 50 delegates in fact be divvied up proportionally by each candidate's share of the primary vote?
"The rule is absolutely clear — it should be proportional,'' said former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who led the national party when the rules were drawn up.
Yes, it sounds like an arcane debate about the minutiae of party rules. But if you're the candidate who spends million of dollars and finishes a close second in Florida, it matters a lot whether the winner leaves Florida with 50 more delegates than you or five.
Ron Paul has already decided against spending much money in Florida's primary, saying it's not worth the expense of competing in a winner-take-all state.
And if the primary turns out to be a long slog where only 50 delegates separate the two front-runners, the Florida delegates could determine the nominee.
"It could be a mess," said Steele.
Brian Hughes, spokesman for the Florida GOP, said it's a nonissue, that the RNC's legal office has already signed off on Florida's winner-take-all primary plan.
"Michael Steele can say all he wants, but he's not the chairman anymore," Hughes said. "The RNC accepted our rule and that's it. We are winner-take-all."
That's not guaranteed, however. All it takes is a registered Florida Republican to file a protest with the RNC, and the party's contest committee would have to consider the issue when it meets in August just before the convention.
"August is going to be a very tense month for those of us on the committee on contests. We could be the group that everybody loves or everybody hates," said Fredi Simpson, an RNC member from Washington state who sits on that committee and also helped write the rules.
Like other RNC members, Simpson thinks the rules clearly bar Florida from being winner-take-all. At an RNC meeting in August, members of the Presidential Nominating and Selection Committee passed a resolution calling for the RNC to enforce its rules for proportional delegates on states like Florida that set primaries earlier than April.
"Florida ought to be proportional, and it is up to the RNC legal office to figure out how they do that. That was absolutely the intention when we wrote that rule," said Pete Ricketts, an RNC member from Nebraska who served on the RNC committee appointed in 2008 to draw up delegate selection rules for 2012.
The party's primary rules were intended to encourage a longer primary season, while ensuring that four smaller states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — hold the first contests. Only those states were permitted to hold primaries or caucuses before March 6, the RNC decreed, while any state that held a contest prior to April 1 would award its delegates proportionally. Under the rules, any party that violated the sanctioned calendar would lose half its delegates and potentially face further penalties.
Republican leaders in Florida, determined to give the state a big say in picking the nominee, decided having their delegation slashed from 99 to 50 was worth it and set Florida's primary for Jan. 31. The RNC has said Florida will be a winner-take-all primary, but that decision is still subject to challenge.
Marc Cross, a GOP state committeeman from Osceola County, has already written to the RNC, urging it to review the matter, but the RNC has taken no action.
When that likely challenge comes up in August the committee should divide up Florida's delegates proportionally, said John Ryder, an RNC member from Tennessee who helped write the rules.
"It should bring the delegation in compliance with the RNC,'' he said. "When we come to Tampa next summer, I'm sure the members of the state Legislature expect us to follow the laws of the state of Florida. And when the people of Florida come to the national convention, they're expected to follow the rules of the RNC."
Back when Romney was poised to sail to the nomination and had a big lead in Florida, the delegate question looked like bureaucratic inside baseball.
Now, however, it looks like Florida could be close, the race could drag on, and Florida's delegates might actually be crucial.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]