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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Florida stirring pot over primary again

Telegraph Editorial

Just when it looked like New Hampshire voters might not have to juggle thoughts of Christmas shopping with nominating a presidential candidate next year, one of the Southern states that leapfrogged to the front of the pack three years ago is threatening to stay there.

That’s much to the chagrin of Democratic and Republican national leaders.

Last summer, you may recall, both the Democratic and Republican national committees agreed that only four states would be permitted to conduct their caucus or primary prior to March 1 next year: the traditional early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

While not etched in stone, the current schedule calls for Iowa to hold its caucuses Feb. 6, followed by the New Hampshire primary Feb. 14, the Nevada caucuses Feb. 18 and the South Carolina primary Feb. 28.

As a result, a number of states that jumped ahead to February last year – including California, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Virginia – are considering legislation that would return them to their traditional slots in March or later for 2012.

But not Florida. So far, Republican legislative leaders are balking at any attempt to push back its primary any later than Jan. 31, the date as of today.

If allowed to stand, that would have the domino effect of shifting New Hampshire and the other early states back into January – just like last time. In 2008, New Hampshire voters went to the polls Jan. 8, one week after ringing in the New Year.

“Florida’s the most important presidential state, and we’d like to keep our current position as one of the early states,” Senate President Mike Haridopolos told Politico last week.

While we and others might quibble with that pronouncement, the Hanging Chad State has a number of things working in its favor.

First and foremost, it has the home-field advantage of hosting the Republican National Convention in Tampa next summer, which might make it difficult – not to mention downright embarrassing – for national GOP leaders to punish the state as it did in 2008.

Last time, the Republican National Committee stripped Florida of half its delegates, though it ultimately had no bearing on the nomination of Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The state also has emerged as the nation’s pre-eminent swing state, picking up an additional two electoral votes as a result of population gains registered in the 2010 census. Florida, which has split the last four presidential elections between the Democratic and Republican candidates, now commands 29 electoral votes, nine more than Pennsylvania and 11 more than Ohio.

Still, there is a long way to go before New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner needs to start scrambling for alternative dates.

So far, neither national committee has shown any sign of backing down, and the chairmen of the state’s Democratic and Republican parties have called on lawmakers to move the primary back to March. Even new Republican Gov. Rick Scott isn’t thrilled with talk of a January primary, having voiced concerns over any prospect of not seating the state’s full delegation.

Last week, two Florida Democrats filed legislation that would move the state’s primary election from Jan. 31 to March 6, which makes perfect sense. It would still put Florida in a position to influence the selection of the next Republican nominee without pushing the Iowa and New Hampshire contests into the holidays.

Either way, Gardner is well positioned to do what has to be done. Last summer, Gov. John Lynch signed a bill into law that strengthened the secretary of state’s hand even further, ensuring he has all the flexibility he needs to maintain the tradition of the first-in-the-nation primary.

Still, it would be nice if he didn’t have to use it.