Florida Threatens to Start a 2012 Primary Stampede

Influential Florida Republicans are once again squaring off with the Republican National Committee over the timing of the state's 2012 primary election in a battle that could jumpstart the presidential campaign season.

Everyone knows the presidential campaign trail goes through the traditional early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. However, in 2008, Florida crashed the party by moving its primary election to Jan. 29. In turn, Iowa and New Hampshire plus the other two states granted early primary status by the RNC, South Carolina and Nevada, pushed up their contests to the first weeks of the new year.

The RNC has ruled that any state other than the favored four that holds its primary before March 1, 2012 will lose half of its delegates at the national convention. But Florida law still calls for the state's primary election to take place on the last Tuesday in January in a presidential year, which falls on Jan. 31 next year. And it looks increasingly unlikely that Florida legislators will act to bring the state in line.

"Let's just be candid, Florida is the most important state in the union," said Republican Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos. "Iowa, New Hampshire give everyone an opportunity to compete, from that point forward you need to show you have the heft to win a state like Florida."

In 2008, the early vote cost Florida half of its 114 delegates to the convention that nominated Sen. John McCain. Without the penalty, Florida would have had the third most delegates. With the penalty, they were 12th. RNC officials say if Florida won't budge, their delegation will be punished again next year.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that's a terrible idea for the party.

"If the RNC thinks the way to win Florida -- which they cannot win the presidency without -- is to sanction the most important swing state in the country, then good luck to them," Rubio told Fox News.

And those who say a Florida with only half of its delegates is not nearly as big of a prize would be wise to remember that in 2008 all the candidates knew the RNC was threatening the Sunshine State with the exact same punishment and every major candidate campaigned there.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani famously staked his entire campaign on the state and when McCain edged out Mitt Romney there, it was seen as a critical victory and the momentum that powered him to the nomination.

As one Romney loyalist who was part of 2008 team told Fox News, "We only lost there by a few points. We would have won the nomination if we could have pulled off Florida."

RNC officials say the rules agreed upon with their counterparts at the Democratic National Committee say that only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will be at the front of the line and that those states won't vote until February 2012.

"The RNC reached an agreement with the DNC that is the best way forward for our country's presidential nomination process. It was an agreement that both parties felt protected the integrity of the nominating procedure and expanded the number of voters who could participate in the process," said RNC Spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski. "We will continue to provide assistance to individual states to ensure they are in line with the rules."

In 2007 it was Rubio, then the speaker of the Florida House, who was instrumental in the effort to move up Florida's primary date and he is in no hurry to change the date now.

"I'm OK with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina -- those are established states and I don't think Florida desires to get ahead of any of them. But after that, why should Florida be behind anyone else?" Rubio said. "It behooves us to make sure that whoever our nominee is someone that is palatable in Florida and does well in Florida. And the best way to do that is by winning the primary."

Notice that Rubio left out the state of Nevada when talking about the established early states. Iowa and New Hampshire are the traditional first caucus and primary states, and South Carolina has become recognized as home of the "first in the South" primary.

However, in 2008 Nevada was a new addition from the national parties and the experiment was not well received by many in the political community. If turnout is any gauge, Nevadans weren't too excited about it either. Less than 10 percent of the state's registered Republicans showed up for the vote.

Politicians in traditional early states aren't thrilled about Florida's jockeying but are confident of maintaining their prime spots. Most states need to pass legislation to move the primary date, but not New Hampshire. Secretary of State Bill Gardner famously holds all the cards there. He can set the primary for whichever date he wants and it's usually his strategy is to make an announcement so late that other states eager to jump the line are shut out.

In the last cycle Gardner stalled until the Thanksgiving holiday of 2007 to announce that New Hampshire would hold its presidential primary election on Jan. 8, 2008. That was weeks and months after other states had made their plans. And if states lack experience with early primaries, they likely lack the infrastructure and experienced electorate to pull off an election on short notice, as Iowa and New Hampshire are able to do.

"We'll still have our spot, you can be assured of that," said Ryan Williams, a Republican operative in New Hampshire. "It's just if Florida jumps the line then we'll have to move up again and you'll have people campaigning over the Christmas season. No one wants to see attack ads while their kids are watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special."

There are some within the RNC who would rather not see Florida jump the line but see it as inevitable, and any punishment as futile.

"It's a big, important state in Republican politics," said one committeeman who preferred to remain anonymous. "I thought we were the party of states' rights? And besides are you really going to turn away the delegates of the host state?"

That's the other thorn poking the RNC in the side: The 2012 Republican National Convention will be held in none other than Tampa, Fla.

However, Haridopolos said he and other Florida Republicans are willing to compromise: "We're open to adjusting our date ... if they're willing to give us the fifth position in this race."