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Florida's influence on GOP race may not be known until January

TAMPA - When Florida Republicans go to the polls on Jan. 31 for their presidential primary, they'll award the winner a major coup, 50 convention delegates. By comparison, the first three primary and caucus states -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- total 65, so Florida is by far the biggest early state prize. Or is it? If some Republicans have their way, the Florida winner could spend millions to campaign here, and then walk away with a much smaller haul, maybe only a dozen or 15 delegates, diminishing the importance of the state to the winner.
Florida has long been a "winner-take-all" state in Republican primaries, and the state party has adopted a winner-take-all system for awarding its 2012 delegates. But its primary date, Jan. 31, falls into a period when national party rules say only proportional allocation systems are allowed. Such systems divide up delegates among candidates who reach a certain percentage of the votes. That could split Florida's delegates among three or more candidates, making the winner's prize much smaller, but providing an unexpected bonus for the second, third or even fourth-place finisher. The national Republican Party has said it won't enforce that rule in Florida's case, because the state already is incurring another penalty for its early primary date – those 50 delegates are only half the 99 the state would have if its date conformed to national party rules. But one Florida party activist has filed a protest challenging that ruling, and a party committee may yet have to rule on the question – possibly as late as mid-January. Meanwhile, campaigns are at work in Florida without real certainty on how many delegates they're competing for. Spokesmen for Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney said that won't affect how they campaign. "As we understand it, the (Republican National Committee) has interpreted the rules to mean it's a winner-take-all state," said Nick Hansen, Florida field director for the Rick Perry campaign. "But regardless of that, we're running a statewide campaign to win it all." Campaigns of some other candidates – Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul – didn't respond to email inquiries Wednesday. But "If they don't feel they have a fair chance at getting delegates in Florida, they may not come," said Paul Senft, one of Florida's three members of the RNC. "It's a very expensive state to campaign in. If somebody's limited on funds they may choose to go to another state." Florida Republicans say the publicity and momentum from winning Florida, the first large, diverse state on the primary schedule and the nation's premier swing state, is more important to any candidate than numbers of delegates. Florida, they believe, will be the tie-breaker, picking the leader after various candidates do well in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But Senft said the purpose of the RNC rules is to stretch out the nominating contest, and he doubts it will be settled early. Mark Cross of Osceola County, who filed his protest about two weeks ago over the delegate selection plan, said he's a Ron Paul supporter, but that his action "doesn't have anything to do with the Ron Paul campaign." Rather, it was because he thinks the state party should follow national party rules. Florida party spokesman Brian Hughes noted that both Cross and Senft are members of the state party committee that voted unanimously for the winner-take-all plan. Both Cross and Senft said, however, that the committee had only about five minutes to consider the issue in a Sept. 25 meeting, with an Oct. 1 deadline looming. RNC spokesman Ryan Tronovich said via email that halving the delegation 50 is the only sanction that will be applied. "We can't punish the same state twice for the timing rule and the proportional rule." But Senft said RNC committees charged with enforcing the primary rules might not agree, and could impose the proportional requirement. "That's what we were told when we wrote the rules," said Senft, a member of the RNC's rules committee. Tronovich said the question should be settled by the end of this year, when the party will issue its call for the convention. But Senft said the RNC's contest committee could hear the question, and it won't meet until Jan. 11, less than three weeks before the primary. One member of that committee, Fredi Simpson of Washington state, said she believes the RNC will halve the Florida delegation or enforce proportionality, but not both – but she acknowledged some party activists are angry at Florida's schedule-busting and want maximum punishment. "I've had people say we should really stick it to them," she said. She acknowledged the uncertainty presents a problem for the candidates, but said, "I don't know how to make it better … Florida put themselves in this situation."

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