- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. | In a virtual replay of 2008, Florida is bucking the national Democratic and Republican parties in planning an early presidential primary, an act of defiance that creates strategic challenges for GOP candidates and could unravel the primary calendar next year.

The added wrinkle this time: The 2012 Republican National Convention is in Tampa, Fla. If national Republican leaders make good on their threat to penalize states that don’t follow the rules, Florida’s own delegates could be stopped at the door when the GOP gathers to pick its presidential ticket.

With the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature showing no signs of giving in, other states that want to have a large say early in the nominating process - including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina - are jockeying to stay out in front.

Political observers say the outcome of standoffs such as in Florida will help determine whether the political parties can bring order to the primary calendar or whether it becomes a free-for-all.

“It could have a domino effect, just as it did the last time,” said Mike Duncan, who chaired the Republican National Committee in 2008 when the major parties struggled to keep states on a primary schedule that followed the rules.

The Republican and Democratic national committees agreed on a schedule that would begin the 2012 nominating process next February, when Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada would hold primaries and caucuses. Other states couldn’t hold a primary or caucus before March 6.

However, a 2007 Florida law says that the state’s presidential primary must be held on the last Tuesday in January - that’s Jan. 31 next year - and only the Republican-controlled Legislature can change it. Its leaders have shown no inclination to accept the national parties’ demands, and there’s a good chance the date will either remain unchanged or perhaps be moved to February.

Traditional early-primary states don’t intend on letting Florida host the nation’s first contest. New Hampshire state law requires its primary to be the first in the nation. Iowa and South Carolina are already preparing to move up their dates if Florida doesn’t change.

Florida’s legislative leaders calculate that the current early primary date makes the state a bigger player in the nominating process. An early primary also attracts candidates and forces them to address issues important to the state, such as the space program, Cuba and Everglades restoration.

They also know Florida is the biggest swing state in the general election - as the 2000 presidential recount will attest - which makes the national parties wary of alienating even a small fraction of state voters. It’s a bigger concern for the Republicans in 2012, because the GOP is expected to have a hotly contested presidential race while President Obama is not expected to have a serious Democratic challenger.

“The Republican Party of Florida has the upper hand vis-a-vis the Republican National Committee. The road to the White House goes through Florida,” said Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor.

Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, both Republicans, support an early primary. Mr. Cannon believes Florida demographically is more representative of the country than other early-voting states and should have a larger say in the process, spokeswoman Katie Betta said.

But national party leaders are also standing firm.

“The RNC and DNC agreed to a schedule for our country’s presidential-nominating process that protects the integrity of the nominating procedure and expands the number of voters who could participate in the process. We will continue working with states to meet the established guidelines,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.

But GOP officials knows they needs Florida and its 29 electoral votes to defeat Mr. Obama, who narrowly carried the state in 2008.

“Can you imagine the scene with the delegates who are not allowed to be seated?” Mr. Smith said. “The RNC is not going to do that. They’re not going to refuse Florida’s voice in their nomination for the next candidate for president.”

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