WASHINGTON – Not to be shoved to the wings of the political stage, Florida has made it clear it will play a major role in the 2008 elections whether the national parties like it or not.
Lawmakers in the swing state that played the decisive role in the 2000 election have decided to move the presidential primary vote to Jan. 29, a week after the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire and a week before Feb. 5, the day the national Republican and Democratic parties have sanctioned as Super Tuesday.
The move catapults Florida ahead of the 24 states that have so far signed up to vote on Super Tuesday and plants the primary on the same day as South Carolina's, whose primary date was sanctioned by the parties. That state's legislature is now considering moving up its primaries in retaliation.
The Iowa caucuses remain the first contest of the season on Jan. 15, followed by the new Nevada caucuses on Jan. 19 and New Hampshire's vote on Jan. 22.
Florida officials on both sides of the aisle had been supportive of the state Legislature’s decision to defy the national parties and move up the date.
“We recognize the (national) party’s need to control the primaries, but individual states need to do what best benefits their voters,” said Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, who acknowledged threats from the national GOP.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean "was pretty hard over about not liking this whatsoever," said Sen. Bill Nelson, who spoke with Dean last week to remind him that Florida's law overshadows party rules and state Democrats should not be punished for that.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the move makes Florida the first big state along with South Carolina to vote before Super Tuesday.
"Florida has done a smart thing politically in that it's jumped the line while the other states have obeyed the party rules," Sabato said. "Florida decided to take the kick in the pants from both (national) parties in order to maximize its influence."
The parties, however, may respond with more than just a kick. Florida now faces possible sanctions: Republican National Committee rules could strip the state of half its delegates to the national convention if it refuses to move back. The DNC could strip delegates from the convention and from individual candidates who raise money or campaign in the state ahead of that date.
But analysts say Florida is in the catbird seat. A big, dynamic state with 27 electoral votes, it could bring a wave of momentum to the candidates in either party who win there, making Florida a major player in deciding the nominees. Even if a candidate were to lose the early contests, a big win in Florida could change his or her luck quickly.
"I call Florida the launching pad," said Matt Towery, who runs InsiderAdvantage, a polling company based out of Atlanta, Ga. "The impact of this is going to be tremendous. This is the first real national test for both parties, no question about it."
Towery and others point out that Florida, a state of 19 million people, is divided nearly equally among Democrats and Republicans, though Democrats have a slight edge, roughly 4.7 million to 4.3 million Republicans. Independents number about 2.4 million. The analysts who spoke with FOXNews.com agree that Florida is not only big, it is more reflective of the national demographic and is not a clear shoo-in for either party or ideology.
"We thought, in the discussions we had with both (state) legislators and political leaders, that it was time for a major state with demographics that were somewhat reflective of the United States to have an up-front role in picking the (presidential) candidate for both parties," said Gary Lee, chairman of the Lee County Republican Party, which oversees several strong GOP territories in southwest Florida.
Towery said Florida is also unique thanks to its large Cuban-American, Puerto Rican and Haitian populations, and the number of retirees and transients who settle there from all over the country.
"Florida is the national melting pot and the only really likely swing state at this time in the presidential election," said Towery.
But not everyone is convinced of Florida's predominance, and not everyone is eager to cede television and radio airtime and newspaper ink to a state that helped delay the 2000 election by more than a month before the Supreme Court determined that George W. Bush had beaten Al Gore there, deciding the presidency.
The specter of "hanging chads" and political chicanery revolving around paper ballots and the hand recount still loom.
"It remains to be seen whether Florida will become a battlefield again," said Republican strategist Brent Littlefield. "I think every state likes to think they are important." However, he added, "I'm sure both parties will deploy tremendous resources there again."
But Who Does It Help?
It would seem that the law to move up the primary, passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, is aimed at benefiting Republicans. But the majority of Florida Democratic legislators supported the earlier date as well and Democrats in the state say with popular GOP Gov. Jeb Bush gone and his president-brother's approval rating wallowing at record lows, opportunity is on the horizon.
"I didn't feel this good six months ago," said Mark Bubriski, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, who pointed out the organization was out of debt, is fielding an army of organizers and finally has a statewide voter file to target supporters.
Democrats may also have the state's political mood on their side. The party picked up two Republican U.S. congressional seats and seven state House seats in the 2006 midterm elections. Bubriski said Democrats also won the Hispanic vote — practically unheard of because of the strong Republican-leaning Cuban-American community in Miami — for the first time in 30 years.
"We feel really good about where we are, preparing for the 2008 election," he said. As for the controversy over the primary date, he said the state party is still trying to work out options with the national organization to avoid a serious rift.
While losing delegates sounds severe, analysts say the punishment matters less and less as the party's presidential nominee is typically decided long before the national convention scheduled in the summer of 2008. The momentum a candidate can glean from a big Florida win could be enough to make Florida a key player without the delegates, they point out.
On the other hand, Republicans argue that Crist, who is gaining popularity in the state, is leading a new surge and they are confident the GOP comeback will be nationwide. Greer said he thinks the country is looking for leadership, and despite the unpopularity of the Bush war policy abroad, he still thinks Republicans trump Democrats on national security.
"I think we have a good opportunity to take back Congress in 2008, and I think we have a good opportunity to win the White House again," he said.
Lee said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, known for his steadfast response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, is winning the vast majority of Republican voter polls in the state, and has a formidable organization there. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for months has been combing Florida with organizers, he added.
On the Democratic side, the frontrunners have been spotted most often in the Miami-Dade area, raising money and generating interest among the party faithful, observers point out. As she is doing in other states, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is dominating the Democratic polls in Florida.
Sabato said the nominee could be all but chosen in New Hampshire and Iowa, but if not, Florida could be the tie-breaker if the frontrunners in either party split up the early races. Either way, Florida will be back in the spotlight ahead of the pack.
"The downside to Florida is the 2000 elections," said Sabato. "The upside is everyone pays attention to what they do and they could decide the nominee."