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Florida GOP may upend timetable for primaries

Set to move vote up, ahead of N.H.

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 29, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Florida officials indicated yesterday the key presidential primary state would push its election up to Jan. 31, a decision that would spark a rapid reshuffling of the GOP calendar, accelerate campaigning, and force candidates to once again spend their Christmas season stumping in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Ignoring efforts by the national Republican Party to prevent a repeat of the chaotic and compressed 2008 primaries, states such as Florida are again jockeying to hold an influential early primary. In response, New Hampshire is again defending its tradition of holding the first-in-the-nation primary, vowing to push its contest to the earliest days of January or even December of this year, if that is what it takes to stay first.

“We’ll react accordingly,’’ said New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner. “I’ve always said that New Hampshire will maintain its tradition.’’

Tradition is one consideration, but the Republican National Committee’s main interest in making states adhere to its schedule is creating an equitable and orderly nominating process. To that end, the RNC required that four early states - New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada - hold their nominating contests in February and that no other state go sooner than March 6.

To enforce its intention, the committee threatened to take away half of the offending state’s delegates at next year’s convention, which happens to be in Florida. That has done little to dissuade states, which are required to submit their primary dates by Saturday.

“We are expecting to meet on Friday . . . and I expect that they will pick Jan. 31 as Florida’s primary date,’’ Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Republican who helped select members of a nine-member state election commission, told CNN yesterday.

Other states, including Georgia, could follow suit, potentially pushing the early voting states even earlier.

Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are annoyed that Florida appears willing to stick by its Jan. 31 date.

“You have a lot of states that go, ‘How come this small state?’ ’’ said Steve Duprey, an RNC committeeman from New Hampshire. “But the fact of the matter is, we’ve been doing it for over half a century. It’s bred into our culture. It’s part of the DNA of living here. Florida is a wonderful state but you don’t get to do any door to door or town hall meetings. You fly from media market to media market.’’

A shift to earlier primary votes would have far-reaching consequences for the candidates. It could make it much harder for any potential late entrants such as Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Having a quick burst of high-stakes nominating contests in January could also make it more difficult for lesser-known candidates to capitalize on any early upset or better-than-expected finishes. That would benefit such candidates as Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, who already are well known and have the resources to compete in multiple states.

Also, the shifting of primaries could alter candidates’ strategies. Romney, for example, would benefit by an early primary in Michigan, where he spent his childhood and where his family name carries weight in a state where his father served as governor. Romney, who is courting more moderate voters, could also benefit from early states that allow independents to vote in the Republican primary.

Perry could benefit by having several Southern states voting early in the process.

And if the nominating contest ends up being close - where each delegate matters - the ramifications could be significant and intense. The rules would require any state holding primaries and caucuses in violation of RNC rules to lose half their delegates. If those lost delegates end up representing a candidate’s potential margin of victory, party officials are predicting a convention fight over whether to seat them.

The potential scenarios echo the contests of 2008. In what both parties said was a process that got out of control, the elections began just after New Year’s, with many candidates spending their holidays seeking votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Romney campaign staffers balanced Christmas shopping at the mall with going over turnout rates. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s campaign put up signs reading, “Merry Christmas and a Huckabee New Year.’’ Then-senator Barack Obama’s 9-year-old daughter, Malia, reportedly cried upon learning their Christmas vacation plans would center on Des Moines - not on the family traditional trip to Obama’s native Hawaii.

Some top Republicans have argued in favor of a quicker nominating contest so the GOP can focus on rallying their base and raising money to compete with President Obama - rather than a nomination that divides Republicans into factions.

“Why do we want to prolong this when the [Democratic] side’s got no contest?’’ said Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts and an adviser to Romney. “The sooner the better. Honestly, regardless of who the nominee is.’’

If Florida Republicans stick with their declared plan to hold a Jan. 31 primary, it would create a difficult choice for candidates: Either shun an important state or go against the wishes of national Republicans and mount a primary campaign there.

While campaigning yesterday in New Hampshire, Romney did not say whether he would refuse to campaign in Florida if the state moves up its primary date.

“I believe the people of Iowa and New Hampshire pay a lot of attention to their candidates and they’ll be first,’’ Romney said. “I don’t really get involved in the decisions of each state as to when they’re going to have their contest. We’re ready whenever the process begins.’’

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said they would not address whether they would campaign in Florida if the state violates the rules, but said the campaign supports New Hampshire and other early states going first.

Globe correspondent Shira Schoenberg contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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