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Florida will likely hold primary Jan. 31, disrupting nominating process

State leaders appear poised to move up Florida's presidential primary to Jan. 31 in an effort to make the Sunshine State a kingmaker in the race for the presidential nomination. House Speaker Dean Cannon said Wednesday the state commission in charge of picking the date for the primary election is expected to choose the last day of January. The commission, made up of appointees by Cannon, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Gov. Rick Scott, is scheduled to make its decision Friday, the day before the deadline set by the Republican National Committee. Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he, Haridopolos and Scott have settled on Jan. 31 as the date.
Florida's move is expected to have a domino effect on the four traditional early primary or caucus states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — which likely will reschedule their contests ahead of Florida's. Iowa's caucus, the earliest nominating contest in the country, has been set for Feb. 6. "Our goal has never changed from what we articulated back in April — that is, that Florida would go earlier, and no later than fifth, and that we would have our own date unique to Florida," Cannon said. "Jan. 31 achieves all of this." Florida's decision also defies rules set by the Republican and Democratic national committees against states other than the traditional first four staging their nominating contests before March 6. The national parties have sought to avoid a thicket of significant, tightly scheduled nominating contests that back up the campaign season into the winter holidays. Practically speaking, the issue is relevant this cycle only for Republicans, barring a surprise, significant Democratic primary challenger to President Barack Obama. States that violate the primary date rule — such as Arizona and Michigan, which plan to move their contests to February — could lose half their delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August. "It's far more important to me that we maximize Florida's voters' voices in the conversation about choosing our next president than we strictly comply with (Republican National Committee) or (Democratic National Committee) rules," Cannon said. His comments echo that of Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who said this month that he's more concerned about Florida influencing the nominating process than the convention "coronation process" afterward. "The Senate president firmly believes that Florida is the ultimate bellwether state and, as such, should play a pivotal role in the selection of the next Republican presidential nominee," Haridopolos spokeswoman Lyndsey Cruley said Friday. "President Haridopolos also believes that Florida holding its primary on Jan. 31 accomplishes that goal." Staff for Scott did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Taking the fifth slot in the nominating process could make Florida particularly influential in 2012 because no single GOP candidate is expected to prevail across the four early states. If the races in those states produce a split result, Florida's result could determine the true Republican front-runner. With its 29 electoral votes, Florida is the largest swing state, making it vital to winning the presidency, said state Rep. Seth McKeel, a member of the primary date commission. who is "completely for" Jan. 31. "It stands to reason, given our size and diversity, that our electoral should have, in my opinion, that level of influence early in the national debate," said McKeel, R-Lakeland. "If you wait till much later in the process, as has happened in the past, the decision is largely already made by the time the candidates get to Florida." Those are all sound arguments, said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida professor of political science. In 2008, he said, John McCain's victory in Florida's Jan. 29 primary solidified his front-runner status. "Money and media attention follow the winners of the early primaries." There is, he said, some risk in trading early influence during primary season for later influence at a convention if the race gets tight. He noted that in early 2008, there was talk for several months of a possible "brokered" DNC convention over the close race between Obama and Hillary Clinton. When no candidate wins enough delegates during the primary season to claim an outright majority, a party's nomination is determined, or "brokered," by the delegates attending the convention. The last such instance occurred in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won his party's nomination at the DNC convention. Most likely, Jewett said, an early primary will benefit Florida, in part because it will force candidates to focus more on issues of interest to the state. "Florida voters certainly have a chance to influence heavily who the nominee will be," Jewett said.

cwhittenburg@tampatrib.com (850) 222-8382

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