TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In a virtual replay of 2008, Florida is bucking national Democrats and Republicans in planning an early presidential primary, an act of defiance that creates strategic challenges for GOP candidates and could unravel the parties' primary calendar next year.
The added wrinkle this time: The 2012 Republican National Convention is in Tampa. If national Republican leaders make good on their threat to penalize states that don't follow the rules, host delegates could be stopped at the door when the GOP gathers to pick its presidential ticket.
With the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature showing no signs of giving in, other states that want to have a large say early in the nominating process — including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — are jockeying to stay out in front.
Minnesota Republicans are complicating matters, too. They said they plan to go forward with a nonbinding presidential straw poll on Feb. 7, the day after the Iowa caucuses, and maintain that it doesn't run afoul of national party rules because no delegates will be selected.
Political observers say the outcome of standoffs such as in Florida will help determine whether the political parties can bring order to the primary calendar or whether it becomes a free-for-all.
"It could have a domino effect, just as it did the last time," said Mike Duncan, who chaired the Republican National Committee in 2008 when the major parties struggled to keep states on a primary schedule that followed the rules.
The Republican and Democratic national committees agreed on a schedule that would begin the 2012 nominating process next February, when Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada would hold primaries and caucuses. Other states couldn't hold a primary or caucus before March 6.
However, a 2007 Florida law says that that state's presidential primary must be held on the last Tuesday in January — that's Jan. 31 next year — and only the Republican-controlled Legislature can change it. Its leaders have shown no inclination to accept the national parties' demands and there's a good chance the date will either remain unchanged or perhaps be moved to February. The only legislative proposals to move the date have been filed by Democrats, who are outnumbered by a 2-1 ratio.
Traditional early-primary states don't intend on letting Florida host the nation's first contest. New Hampshire state law requires its primary to be the first in the nation. Iowa and South Carolina are already preparing to move up their dates if Florida doesn't change.
In 1976, Florida actually held the first Southern primary, helping then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter win the Democratic nomination and later the presidency. Over the years, however, Florida's primary remained the second Tuesday in March while other states leapt ahead, rendering the Sunshine State less relevant in the nominating process.
Florida's legislative leaders think the current early primary date makes the state a bigger player in the nominating process. An early primary also attracts candidates and forces them to address issues important to the state, such as the space program, Cuba and Everglades restoration. And when presidential contenders come to Florida, they raise money for local politicians and the state parties — Republicans are already planning a debate tied to the primary they hope will raise millions.
They also know Florida is the biggest swing state in the general election — remember the 2000 presidential recount? — which makes the national parties wary of alienating even a small fraction of voters by playing hardball. It's a bigger concern for the Republicans in 2012 because the GOP is expected to have a hotly contested presidential race while President Barack Obama is not expected to have a serious Democratic challenger.
"The Republican Party of Florida has the upperhand vis a vis the Republican National Committee. The road to the White House goes through Florida," said Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor. "It doesn't go through Columbia, South Carolina, and it certainly doesn't go through Manchester, New Hampshire."
A similar scenario played out in 2008 when both parties had contested nominations and Florida held its primary in January, contrary to the national party's rules. After Florida moved up its primary, Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan moved up their elections.
The Republican National Committee told Florida it would lose half its delegates if it didn't comply with party rules and hold a later primary. The Democratic National Committee said the state would lose all its delegates.
Florida lawmakers ignored the parties. The major Democratic candidates largely boycotted the state but Republican candidates visited early and often, knowing that even half of Florida's delegates were still more than those of Iowa and New Hampshire's combined. Arizona Sen. John McCain won Florida and used the momentum to earn the nomination. Then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary — and then flew into the state to claim what she called a "tremendous victory." It gave her campaign some hope after she had lost three of four early states to Obama.
The Democrats eventually gave Florida back its delegates. Republicans stuck to their rules, but allowed the would-be delegates access to the convention floor as guests.
Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos support an early primary. Cannon believes Florida demographically is more representative of the country than other early states and should have a larger say in the process, spokeswoman Katie Betta said.
Cannon would be willing to move the date, she said, but only to mid-February, which would still violate RNC rules. Betta noted that the RNC hasn't talked to Cannon yet about making a change.
He can expect national party leaders will.
"The RNC and DNC agreed to a schedule for our country's presidential nominating process that protects the integrity of the nominating procedure and expands the number of voters who could participate in the process. We will continue working with states to meet the established guidelines," RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
But the national party knows it needs Florida and its 29 electoral votes to defeat Obama, who carried the state in 2008.
"Can you imagine the scene with the delegates who are not allowed to be seated?" Smith said. "The RNC is not going to do that. They're not going to refuse Florida's voice in their nomination for the next candidate for president."
Still, the state party is playing along, agreeing with their counterparts at the Florida Democratic Party to at least publicly call for compliance with the rules.
"It's the Legislature's decision, not ours," said Republican Party of Florida Chairman Dave Bitner. "They're all trying to strike a happy balance between Florida being relevant in the choice of the next president and satisfying the needs of the RNC."
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said it's up to the Republican majority in Tallahassee — his party has no real say.
"They have the leadership and if they refuse to do the right thing, that's their choice and it's a shame for voters on either side who run the risk of having their votes devalued," he said.
In the meantime, party leaders in other early-primary and -caucus states are keeping a watchful eye on what Florida does.
"We're waiting to see what happens in Florida," Minnesota GOP Chairman Tony Sutton said. He said his state has "clearance" from the RNC to have the nonbinding straw poll, but the state party will probably push back caucuses by a few weeks.
South Carolina GOP executive director Joel Sawyer said: "Regardless of what happens in Florida, South Carolina will hold it's primary before they do."
AP writers Martiga Lohn in St. Paul, Minn., Norma Love in Concord, N.H., and Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
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