GOP starting line inches toward New Year's Day

By Stephen Ohlemacher

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 29 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2008 file photo, voters line up at a polling station to vote in Florida's presidential primary in Coral Gables, Fla. A Florida commission is expected to announce Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, that its presidential primary will be held Jan. 31, according to Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, though GOP officials from other states are lobbying Florida to reconsider.

Wilfredo Lee, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — So much for pushing back the start of primary season.

Despite efforts by both political parties to avoid a repeat of 2008 by delaying early presidential primaries and caucuses, states trying to increase their influence are leapfrogging their dates, threatening to push the first Republican contests into early January — again.

A Florida commission is expected to announce Friday that its presidential primary will be held Jan. 31, according to Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, though GOP officials from other states are lobbying Florida to reconsider.

The move by Florida could spark a stampede by Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which were granted special status by both political parties, allowing them to hold the first nominating contests.

"The bottom line is, if Florida moves, I'm moving," said South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly, who has the authority to schedule the state's Republican primary. "We're going to be the first in the South presidential preference primary, no matter what it takes."

Connelly said he would try to schedule South Carolina's primary as close to Florida's as possible, perhaps holding it the Saturday before the Florida vote, on Jan. 28. That scenario could push the Iowa GOP caucuses to Jan. 9, followed by the New Hampshire primary Jan. 17 and the Nevada causes Jan. 21.

This scenario, however, assumes that no other state jumps into January.

"Iowa will be first. The only open question is the date on which we hold our first in the nation caucuses," Iowa GOP chairman Matthew Strawn said. "Ironically, in attempting to assert increased relevance in the process, Florida's move only elevates the importance of Iowa and the other early states. A compressed caucus and primary calendar makes doing well in the four kickoff states a necessity for a candidate to secure the Republican nomination."

Georgia broke the trend Thursday, announcing it will hold its primary March 6, the 2012 version of Super Tuesday.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has emerged as the Republican front-runner, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney his chief rival. Farther back in the polls are Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

The RNC deadline for setting primary and caucus dates is Saturday, though some states may miss it. Those states could have their delegations challenged at the national convention in Tampa, Fla. Four years ago, New Hampshire waited until Nov. 21 to schedule its primary, which was held Jan. 8. That year, the Iowa caucuses led the way on Jan. 3.

By law, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner must schedule the Granite State's primary at least seven days ahead of all similar contests. State party rules require Nevada to hold its Republican caucuses four days after New Hampshire's primary, Nevada GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian said.

The Republican National Committee tried to regain control of the primary calendar by passing a rule that penalizes states that schedule nominating contests before March 6, requiring them to forfeit half their delegates to the national convention. Special provisions were made for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which were allowed to schedule contests in February.

The goal was to delay the beginning of a primary season that many believe starts too early, lasts too long and leaves voters weary long before the November general election.

"The whole idea of the RNC rules was to bring maybe a little more sanity to the process by getting it out of the holiday season so that people weren't getting phone calls on Christmas Eve," Saul Anuzis, a member of the Republican National Committee from Michigan, said in an interview.

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