The prospect of Arizona moving up its presidential primary next year has Republican leaders concerned that an early focus on immigration would detract from what many see as the GOP's 2012 trump card — President Obama's handling of the economy.
With most states' primaries settled, the 2012 scheduling is far less contentious than in 2008. But Arizona, Florida and Michigan are still among those flirting with jumping ahead, despite warnings from Republican National Committee officials that they'll lose delegates to the GOP national convention.
The 2012 primary is the first to fall under new RNC rules aimed at avoiding 2008's front-loaded nomination battle, when candidates campaigned through Christmas in preparation for early January caucuses and primaries.
Under the new rules, the idea is to kick off the process in February with Iowa's initial caucuses, followed by New Hampshire's primary, Nevada's caucuses and South Carolina's primary. The rules award states bonus delegates for embracing later primary dates and establish penalties for states that don't follow suit.
Still, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, is leaning toward moving the state's primary election to Jan. 31, arguing that it would help ensure that illegal immigration gets more than lip service in the nomination process.
"There is no question that illegal immigration can be a controversial topic, but it is something that Gov. Brewer thinks is worth addressing and is of national significance and importance to be addressed," said Matthew Benson, her spokesman. "It is easy for candidates to talk in generalities about their support of a secure border, it is something more when they have to lay out specifically how they would accomplish — and specifically what they'd like to do. That is really the biggest reason the governor would like to make sure that Arizona is toward the front of this process in 2012."
State law gives Mrs. Brewer until early September to make a final decision, Mr. Benson said.
Other states are watching the jockeying, and vow to move earlier if Arizona does try to leap-frog.
"If they try to jump a date, we are still going to be first in the South, New Hampshire is going to be the first primary and the only thing that happens if a bunch of states try to jump is that it just creates chaos in the calendar," said South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connolly.
While it is certain that Republican presidential candidates eventually will have to address the nation's broken immigration system, political pundits say that rehashing Arizona's tough immigration law, which Mrs. Brewer signed last year but which has been halted by federal courts, could prove a headache for a GOP field.
"The last thing the party really needs is a sustained debate that alienates Hispanic voters," said John Feehery, a GOP strategist.
Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration official who runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said most Hispanics dislike the Arizona law, and focusing on it during a primary would be dangerous to the GOP.
"Whatever they say in the primary, in the debates, in interviews, will be heard by Latino voters, and if they come out with positions that are seen as anti-immigrant, that is going to hurt them in the general election," Mr. Aguilar said. "Not only hurt them, that will guarantee they lose in the general election."
According to the RNC rules adopted last year, states are stripped of half their delegates if they elbow their way closer to the front of the line. Those states can also be given unfavorable hotel assignments at the 2012 convention in Tampa, Fla., and could be punished with bad seats in the convention hall.
"It's an extremely limited page of sanctions that can be imposed," said John Ryder, an RNC member from Tennessee. "The rewards of moving up, the incentives for moving up, are greater than the potential punishments, which is why we have a problem in maintaining an orderly calendar."
The RNC, though, tabled a proposal last week that called for stiffer sanctions against states that spurn party rules.
"We are waiting on several sets of shoes to drop and depending on how they drop, the party will have to take certain action," Mr. Ryder said.
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