Florida will likely defy national party rules this week and set its presidential primary for Jan. 31, 2012, state House Speaker Dean Cannon said today, a move that would trigger an acceleration of the Republican nominating race.
Cannon expects a Florida commission responsible for scheduling the primary to “formally choose” the January date on Sept. 30, he said in a telephone interview, in a bid to ensure the state goes fifth in balloting after Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
The plan threatens to shift the start of voting in the Republican race a month earlier than party leaders had intended, condensing a number of important contests into January and creating a holiday-season campaign crunch that officials and candidates had hoped to avoid.
The move is designed to boost Florida’s influence in the nominating process, said Cannon, who helped name the nine-member state commission that will endorse the primary date.
“I believe Florida will be the pivotal battleground for the race to the White House,” Cannon said. Because of its geography, demographics and economic issues, he said, “we are a great litmus test for anyone who wants to win the White House.”
Florida’s experience with a Jan. 29 contest in 2008 -- which helped seal Arizona Senator John McCain’s eventual nomination in the Republican race -- shows the state can have a “potentially tremendous impact on who our next president is,” Cannon said.
To retain their status as sites of the initial nomination contests, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada likely would move their contests into early- or mid-January. The first- in-the-nation Iowa caucus had been tentatively set for Feb. 6.
The caucuses were held Jan. 3 in 2008 and New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, followed five days later, spurring complaints that the contests were too close to the holiday season and each other.
“We’re going to work together as effectively as we can to make sure that our original order is maintained, and obviously, the dates are going to be changing as the political circumstances change,” said Wayne MacDonald, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He said an early-January primary date, which would force the candidates to make campaign appearances in the state during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, is “certainly a possibility.”
‘Disserves’ the Process
“I’m deeply disappointed that Florida’s doing this,” MacDonald said in a telephone interview. “Front-loading disserves the whole process. It disserves the candidates, it disserves the voters. It doesn’t give the decision-makers -- the voters -- the fair opportunity they deserve to vet the candidates.”
Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina who specializes in campaigns and elections, said the “worst-case scenario” he envisions is Iowa scheduling its caucuses Jan. 2, with New Hampshire following on Jan. 10.
Florida’s proposal, he said, is the predictable culmination of a decades-long drift to an earlier calendar, driven by states eager to maximize their roles in the nominating process.
“The mindset has been a gradual, slow movement forward,” said Putnam, who writes about the primary calendar on his blog Frontloading HQ. “The campaigns have been operating under the assumption that this was going to start in January anyway, so from their perspective, it hasn’t changed very much.”
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, campaigning today in New Hampshire, told reporters he doesn’t get involved in states’ decisions about scheduling their balloting, and is prepared for whatever schedule is set -- as long as the four states that traditionally go first retain that status.
“We’re ready whenever the process begins,” Romney said. “My expectation is that Iowa and New Hampshire, and for that matter Nevada and South Carolina, will move their calendars such that they are first, and that the order that people expect is the order that we’re going to see.”
The Republican National Committee has barred any state other than the first four from holding its primary before March 6, and said it will penalize states that violate the rule with the loss of half their delegates to the party convention in Tampa, Florida. The deadline for states to set their primary dates is Oct. 1, and it’s not clear whether Florida might reconsider or negotiate a different plan over the next few days.
“We’re going to keep working with all of the states to ensure compliance with the RNC rules,” said Sean Spicer, the party’s communications director. “And any states not in compliance will lose 50 percent of their delegates.”
The threat has proven an empty one in past nominating contests, because nominees can request at the convention that the delegates’ voting rights be restored. In any case, Cannon said the penalty is a “risk worth taking, because it’s far more important we protect Florida’s voters’ voices.”
Ray Buckley, the chairman of New Hampshire’s Democratic Party, called Florida’s proposed move “appalling.”
“Now, New Hampshire voters will undoubtedly be hounded by Republican presidential wannabes as they try to spend time with their families this winter,” he said in a statement.
--Editors: Don Frederick, Jeanne Cummings
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at Jdavis159@bloomberg.net, Margaret Talev in Boca Raton, Florida at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com
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