TALLAHASSEE — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a likely Republican presidential candidate, made a trip to the most important swing state's Capitol, but he wouldn't answer the most important question on the minds of political insiders.
Should Florida be punished for having an early primary?
"I'm going to run in the Florida primary whenever they have it," Barbour said, declining to give a yes-or-no answer. "And I'm going to run in the Florida primary if I run for president. I'm going to run to win the Florida primary whether they have any delegates or have as many delegates or twice as many delegates or no delegates. So it's up to Florida, what they want to do."
Right now, Florida's Republican legislative leaders want to keep the primary right where it's called for in statute: Jan. 31.
But if that happens, the state would lose at least half of its 116 delegates at the Republican National Convention, which is to be held in Tampa in August 2012. The embarrassment of losing delegates — the activists who officially nominate their party's presidential candidate — has split Republicans inside and outside Florida.
Grass roots leaders want the primary moved so that the state is afforded its rightful place at the convention. But legislative leaders want the early primary to remain to ensure Florida is afforded the respect it deserves in national politics.
The state in 2012 will have 29 delegates, more than 10 percent of the total needed to win the Electoral College.
Without Florida, it's almost impossible for Republicans to make up for the solidly Democratic states of California and New York.
Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos says Florida should go fifth, with Iowa and New Hampshire leading the way. Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon said he's not set on an order, but wants Florida to have a primary date that emphasizes its importance.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Florida shouldn't jeopardize its delegates by hosting an early primary.
Barbour, like other likely Republican candidates, is largely staying out of the fray because it's fraught with political peril. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are all threatened by Florida's decision to flex its political muscle and thereby blunt the force of their early votes.
Barbour, who addressed the House Republican caucus Thursday, didn't disguise the purpose of his visit.
"I'm here because I'm thinking of running for president," Barbour told the caucus. "I'm not going to make an announcement until the end of April. But if I run I'm going to run to win Florida."