State leaders are poised to set Florida's 2012 Republican presidential primary for Jan. 31, planting a stake in the ground that already Wednesday had other states scrambling to shift their own primary elections.
Florida's date is expected to be finalized by a special committee in Tallahassee on Friday, and it probably means that presidential candidates will be campaigning hard in Iowa over the Christmas holidays and that some Floridians will be casting absentee ballots before then.
It also means that Florida faces a penalty — losing half of its roughly 116 delegates to the convention in Tampa — for violating rules of the Republican National Committee. Trying to avoid chaos and a front-loaded primary season, the RNC decreed that only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina can hold elections before March 6.
"That's the price we might have to pay," said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, noting the main priority is ensuring America's biggest and most diverse battleground state has a major voice in picking the nominee. "I feel bad for those folks who might not be able to be delegates. But . . . we'd love to give the entire Republican Party membership in Florida the ability to have an influence on who the nominee would be."
Florida bucked the system in 2008 as well, holding a Jan. 29 primary that effectively clinched the nomination for John McCain. Though the RNC revoked half the state's delegates, all Florida delegates ultimately made it to the convention floor in Minneapolis-St. Paul, though half were designated as "honored guests."
Considering that Florida is hosting the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, state Republicans are confident a similar compromise will be worked out.
Don't count on it, the RNC declared.
"Any state that violates the rules will lose half their delegates. This is not a negotiation. These are the rules," said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.
Republican leaders in Florida never intended to leapfrog the four early states but are intent on being the fifth contest and not sharing election day with anyone else. As the first mega state weighing in and the first primary where only registered Republicans can vote, Florida stands to be a potentially decisive election.
Earlier this year, the Legislature rescinded a Jan. 31 primary date and instead appointed a nine-member committee to come up with a date by Saturday.
Until recently, state leaders had expected to set Florida's primary for February, but then other states scheduled February dates. Arizona bucked the RNC first by setting a Feb. 27 primary and then last week Colorado scheduled Feb. 7 caucuses (though they will be officially meaningless with no delegates at stake).
And it prompted Florida to go back to the late January plan.
"We believe that meets the goals of ensuring that Florida comes fifth and that we have our own, separate date," House Speaker Dean Cannon said, leaving open the possibility the date could change again Friday depending on what others do.
Florida's move appears to pave the way for a primary schedule much like 2008 when Iowa held its caucuses Jan. 3, New Hampshire held the first primary Jan. 8, Nevada held caucuses Jan. 19, South Carolina held its Republican primary Jan. 19 and Florida voted Jan. 29.
No matter what, Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn said, Iowa will vote first.
"The only open question is the date on which we hold our First in the Nation Caucuses," Strawn said in an e-mail. "Ironically, in attempting to assert increased relevance in the process, Florida's move only elevates the importance of Iowa and the other early states. A compressed caucus and primary calendar makes doing well in the four kickoff states a necessity for a candidate to secure the Republican nomination."
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner has sole authority to set a primary date and has said he will wait to the last possible moment so long as it protects New Hampshire's status as the first primary state.
That state's Republican House speaker, William O'Brien, called on Florida to reconsider: "Florida's effort to move into the early primary period not only hurts the process, by cutting into the type of vetting that we do so well here in New Hampshire, but it also hurts Florida, by costing them delegates and watering down that state's impact."
Matt Moore, executive director of the South Carolina GOP, promised to move their primary up, and said he had no hard feelings about Florida's move.
"South Carolina's going to be first in the South," Moore said. "We've communicated with Florida throughout the process. It's not Florida's fault. This system has caused this."
An earlier schedule also shortens the timeframe for potential Republican presidential candidates like Sarah Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Oct. 31 would be the deadline for making it onto Florida's ballot.
The primary date only affects Florida Republicans as Barack Obama faces no opposition, and the Florida Democratic Party doesn't plan to place Obama's name on the ballot in January. The party will hold caucuses later in 2012 to select delegates to the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C.
In 2008, the January primary prompted the Democratic National Committee to yank all of Florida's delegates and the candidates to boycott the state's primary. This time, Democratic leaders have been vocal about criticizing the Republican push for an early primary.
Vice President Joe Biden apparently missed those talking points. In an interview Wednesday with Miami's WLRN, Biden said he had no problem with Florida scheduling an early primary.
"The big and important states should have a shot to make a difference in the outcome of the nominating process. I think they have to be in it," Biden said. "You have to provide for some small states to be able to be in the deal so that unknown candidates who are qualified, don't have a lot of money, are able to compete.
"But the idea that you render California or Pennsylvania or Florida or Michigan obsolete — that by the time it gets to them it's all over — I don't think represents what primaries should be about. Far be it from me to suggest to the Republicans when they should schedule the Florida primary."
Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.