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Early primary could hurt Florida, some Republicans say

TAMPA - The plan by Florida Republican leaders to move up the state's presidential primary date to Jan. 31 is drawing dissent from unexpected quarters: Republicans who argue the change would actually decrease Florida's impact on the nomination process. "This is going to make us less influential rather than more," because of the effect on numbers of national convention delegates at stake, said influential GOP activist Paul Senft of Haines City. Senft, one of Florida's three representatives on the Republican National Committee, the governing body of the national party, also called it "a slap in the face to the party" by Florida. He said the move would embarrass the state as it hosts the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012. "We'll be spending all our time apologizing at the convention, and it may be a long time before we get another one," he said.
A committee appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, state House Speaker Dean Cannon and state Senate President Mike Haridopolos will choose the date of the state's presidential primary in a meeting today. Cannon says he, Scott and Haridopolos have settled on Jan. 31. They argue that Florida deserves a prominent, early date because it's the most demographically representative state, and the one swing state a Republican must win in order to win the White House. Cannon rejected Senft's delegate argument, saying publicity and momentum from an early Florida win will outweigh delegate numbers. In 2008, Florida's Jan. 29 primary cemented John McCain as the frontrunner, despite loss of delegates, Cannon noted. "The nominee will be chosen long before the convention. That's what happened in '08; that's what's going to happen again," he said. "These same arguments – the sky is going to fall, terrible things are going to happen – none of that came to pass." In an effort to prevent a lengthening primary season with campaigning during the holidays, both parties agreed two years ago to delay primaries until February, with only four states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – holding primaries or caucuses that month. But states aren't bound by party rules, and many want the attention and influence of an early date. Arizona and Michigan already have moved their primaries to Feb. 28, and others are likely to move up. Florida's move into January, prior to the dates set for the designated four "early states," is drawing the most flak. Cannon, Haridopolos and Scott want the first primary after the four early states, on a date with no other primaries. The four early states all have vowed to move their own dates up before Florida's to preserve their first-in-the-nation status, and issued a joint statement Thursday condemning Florida's move. "We refuse to let rogue states dictate the calendar," said South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly in that statement. "It will be chaos" if the Florida committee chooses Jan. 31, he added in a television interview. "The candidates are going to be traipsing around these places and knocking on people's doors during Christmas time. I think that's a shame." Connelly also said if Florida proceeds with the Jan. 31 date, he'll seek to pull the 2012 convention out of Florida – a move party leaders have previously called extremely unlikely. Republican National Committee spokesman Kirsten Kukowski said the party will continue to work with states until today's deadline to pick primary dates, but Florida GOP sources said Thursday negotiations carried on by the previous state party chairman, the late David Bitner, have ceased. Kukowski repeated the penalty in party rules for breaking the calendar: "Any state that violates the rules will lose 50 percent of its delegates." Senft's argument drew support from some Republicans on Thursday. Hillsborough County party Chairman Debbie Cox-Roush and state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, among others, said they think he's right. Dockery said the Jan. 31 move "likens Florida to a child throwing a tantrum because she isn't getting her way. " Primaries choose national convention delegates who will vote at the national convention for the state's winner, and Senft argues that Florida could get a bigger bang for its delegate buck with a March primary. He said the four early states, plus the four most likely to move into February – Colorado and Missouri along with Arizona and Michigan – could award a total of no more than 212 delegates because of the penalties. With various candidates leading in various states, those delegates are likely to be split up among several candidates. Florida, meanwhile, has 99 delegates if it avoids the penalties. A few would have to be divided up among the top finishers in the state primary, but as many as 65 to 70 would go to the first-place winner, he said. "We could put somebody in the lead, or make the leader a strong frontrunner," he said. Moving to Jan. 31 would diminish that prize. Florida would lose half the delegates, plus its three RNC representatives, leaving 48, and all would be divided among the top finishers. The first-place finisher likely would get fewer than 20, he said.

wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761 cwhittenburg@tampatrib.com (850) 222-8382

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