TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida took a step toward shaking up the presidential campaign season on Thursday, giving final legislative approval to moving the state's 2008 primary to Jan. 29 and bypassing a dozen other states that have set their primaries for Feb. 5.
Moving up Florida's primary, which is currently in early March, would put the state's contest behind only the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary — and on the same day as South Carolina's Democratic primary.
State party leaders have argued Florida's diversity and size merit more influence in deciding the country's leadership. The delegate-rich state decided the disputed 2000 presidential election. The primaries are held to select delegates to the parties' national presidential nominating conventions.
Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who has consistently voiced his support for giving the fourth-largest U.S. state more say, is expected to sign the bill. The House voted 118-0 on Thursday to pass the measure. The Senate last week voted for the plan, which also would replace touch-screen electronic voting machines in 15 counties with a system that also registers votes on paper.
"It puts us in a place where we should have been before, in my humble opinion," Crist said. "It's the first mega-state that will weigh in on who the next leader of the free world is. It's important that we have that opportunity."
Florida's move immediately incurred the wrath of South Carolina party leaders and predictions that the national parties will penalize the state.
National Republican and Democratic leaders have said they will take away delegates to the nominating conventions if Florida moved its primary earlier than Feb. 5. The Democratic National Committee has said a candidate who campaigns in Florida for a primary earlier than Feb. 5 will be ineligible for receiving any of the state's delegates.
Lisa Camooso Miller, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, said that under RNC rules any state that chooses to hold their primary outside the recommended window will be penalized half their delegates.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler, a former DNC Rules Committee co-chair, said she has no doubts that the DNC will enforce rules that will deprive candidates and the state of delegates to the national convention for holding a primary outside of the party's rules.
"Under Democratic Party rules, this is an illegal process. They will have to have their own legal process later," she said. "This is not much more than a straw poll."
Florida lawmakers have repeatedly said they will not cower in the face of sanctions from the national parties because they believe choosing the next president is more important than sending delegates to a convention with a preordained outcome.
Some 12 states, including California, New York and New Jersey, are scheduled to hold their primaries on Feb. 5, and at least seven others are looking to move up their contests.