Florida is maneuvering to give former Gov. Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio a big home state boost by holding a winner-take-all presidential primary under legislation that now awaits Republican Gov. Rick Scott's signature.
The bill approved Wednesday by the Senate would set the state's presidential primary for March 15, the first date available on which all Florida's delegates can go to the Republican primary winner rather than being divided up proportionally.
"Anyone who goes prior to that is going to be proportional. We're going to be the largest, the most diverse swing state that's going to award all of our delegates, so we're still the prize," said state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who also serves as the Republican Party of Florida chairman.
It was the first bill passed in the Legislature's 60-day session. Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said he will sign the bill.
"We just want Florida to be as relevant as possible and we think a winner-take-all makes that happen," said Republican Senate President Andy Gardiner, who says he would support a Bush candidacy.
It's a departure from the last two Florida presidential primaries, when lawmakers broke Republican National Committee rules and scheduled an earlier election in an effort to be more relevant in the nominating process.
The strategy worked then. Even though Florida lost half its delegates, it still had significantly more than other smaller early primary states and it became a frequent campaign stop for candidates. Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 were propelled to the nomination after carrying Florida.
While Florida will no longer give a candidate an early boost, it will still be important in reaching the nomination, Gardiner said.
"Now you can maybe close it out," Gardiner said.
The punishment for breaking RNC rules will be significantly harsher in 2016, forcing Florida to take a new approach. Current law sets the primary date as March 1, and the state would have to proportionally distribute its Republican delegates. Democratic delegates will be proportional regardless of the date as long as it doesn't violate national party rules.
Florida will not be alone on March 15. While many states have yet to finalize their primary dates, several are expected to join Florida in what could be a huge day on the presidential primary calendar.
If Scott signs the bill, it could be a boost to Republicans Bush or Rubio, both of whom are considering a presidential run. And because they're already known in Florida, it could free them up to focus on other large states as they seek the nomination.
The state Republican Party still has to approve the winner-take-all primary, but Ingoglia said he personally supports the idea.
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