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Posted at 5:00 PM ET, 02/15/2011

Florida is first battleground for 2012 presidential primary jockeying

By Rachel Weiner

A fight is brewing in Florida that could shed light on the shape the 2012 presidential primary calendar will ultimately take.

Florida Democrats -- and the state's Republican governor -- want to push the state's presidential primary back to March in compliance with rules adopted by the Republican National Committee.

Republican state legislators want to keep their January primary, risking punishment in exchange for playing an outsized role in deciding their party's nominee.

Whether Florida gives in and agrees to wait will be a sign of whether the two parties are able to impose any order on a process that has been starting earlier and earlier every four years.

In an attempt to combat that relentless calendar creep, the RNC and the Democratic National Committee agreed to operate under the the same primary rules for 2012.

Four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada) are awarded coveted early slots beginning in early February. Every other state has to their primary or caucus for March or later. If a state wants to schedule their vote in March, they must dole out the delegates won in that contest proportionally -- taking away the winner-take-all, "we put the nominee over the top" role that all states covet. Any state to hold their nominating contest after April 1, however, can give out their delegates winner-take-all.

The rules are "a joke," a long-time Republican activist told The Fix, arguing that states aren't likely give up their early primary spots. Late primaries might be better for journalist but the party should be focused on picking a nominee as quickly as possible. "Why would they want a long drawn-out process when the other side has no fight?"," asked the source.

In fact, there are currently 18 states with primaries scheduled in violation of the rules. If you count all the states that have primaries in February or March, there are 32 that need to change the date. In 15 of those states -- Florida included -- the law would have to change for the state to get in line, according to Josh Putnam, a political science professor at Davidson College who runs a blog tracking primary jockeying called "Frontloading HQ".

"The penalties that are described in the rules don't have any real bite to them," said Putnam. Still, he says some states are working on getting in line: "We've got a fair amount of movement in the state legislatures at least, to propose bills."

Legislators in Tennessee just introduced legislation to move the state's primary from February back to March. Similar legislation is moving in Oklahoma, California, New Jersey and Virginia. "Whether they're going to pass," says Putnam, "is an open question."

If states think they can get away with spot-jumping, it's likely because Democrats flip-flopped on the issue in 2008. The party promised punishments in 2008 for states that held early primaries without permission. Florida and Michigan ended up flouting the rules and getting all their delegates seated anyway.

"I didn't see it as chaos," said Florida State Senate President Mike Haridopolos of Florida's role in the 2008 primary race. "I thought it was great. I thought that Florida was a player."

But, Haridopolos' view is not universally held within his party. In fact, Gov. Rick Scott (R), the state's most powerful Republican, is actually closer to the Democrats on this one; "I don't want to lose any of the delegates," he told a group of Florida reporters.

The difference between Florida Republicans is even more important given that Republicans will stage their national nominating convention in Florida in 2012.

"I would encourage the Legislature to do everything they can to abide by the rules passed by both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee together to make sure we can bring some order into the presidential election process," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebustold the Miami Herald in a recent stop in the state.

Florida will be a test case for what is more powerful: a desire to be first (or close to it) or a fealty to the order the national party is seeking to impose. How Florida handles their primary dilemma will set an example for other states mulling the same conundrum.

In short: It may all come down to Florida. Again.

By Rachel Weiner  | February 15, 2011; 5:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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