WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill Monday moving Florida's 2008 presidential primary to Jan. 29 and shaking up the race by bypassing a dozen other states set for Feb. 5.
The move puts Florida's primary, which had been scheduled for March, behind only the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and on the same day as South Carolina's Democratic primary.
Florida has by far the largest population of any of the early voting states set for January and is the most expensive in which to campaign, giving well-funded candidates an even greater advantage and possibly drawing attention away from the smaller states.
"This is going to require the serious candidates to spend very, very large amounts of money and time in Florida," said Merle Black, a politics professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "If you can't compete in Florida, that's going to be a sign that you're not a serious contender."
Crist, a Republican, and other state GOP leaders have argued Florida's diversity and size merit more influence in deciding the nation's leadership. The delegate-rich state decided the disputed 2000 presidential election.
Florida's early election could also have implications in the Feb. 5 primaries scheduled in a dozen other states, including New York and California.
A win in Florida is a big prize because the state is seen as a microcosm of the nation with its diverse population, so it shows how a candidate might do in other states, Black said.
"The candidates who finish first in Florida would presumably be the strongest candidates the party could put up in the November election," Black said. "And in building momentum for a campaign, the candidates that do well in Florida would get intense media coverage leading into the next week's events in early February."
Under both Republican and Democratic party rules, states are penalized for moving their primary earlier than Feb. 5.
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Stacie Paxton said the state would lose 50 percent of its delegates and all its superdelegates -- typically members of Congress. Any candidate who campaigns in Florida for a primary earlier than Feb. 5 will be ineligible for receiving any of the state's delegates, Paxton said.
She added that the DNC hoped to work out a separate plan with the state party, such as a caucus.
"We're working closely with the state party to look at alternatives in accordance with the party rules," Paxton said.
The Republican National Committee would also strip 50 percent of Florida's delegates, spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said.
"Any state that holds their primary before Feb. 5 shall be penalized delegates in accordance with the RNC rules," she said.
The RNC vow to enforce the rules could create problems for its general chairman -- Florida Sen. Mel Martinez.
The bill Crist signed also requires a verifiable paper trail for all voting machines throughout Florida. Currently, 15 of Florida's 67 counties use paperless touch-screen voting machines. The remaining counties use optical scan machines where a voter marks a paper ballot with a pencil and it is electronically scanned.
Florida's voting system attracted national attention in 2000 when dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads on punch card ballots held up a final count in the presidential election. Florida was eventually decided by 537 votes after the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, handing the election to George W. Bush. The state has since banned the punch cards.