Florida legislature throws wrench into primary season

The Florida state House voted Thursday to move its primary to Jan. 29, putting the state on a collision course with the Democratic and Republican parties.

Gov. Charlie Crist (R) hailed the vote and is expected to sign the measure, which sailed through Florida’s Senate before passing easily in the House. Both chambers are Republican-controlled.

The move puts the state parties in direct violation of both national parties’ rules on the matter, endangering the number of nominating delegates Florida can send to the conventions.

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In the Democrats’ case, new bylaws passed last year would penalize candidates who campaign in Florida by taking their delegates and distributing them among those who did not.

What’s more, the date falls on the scheduled primary date for South Carolina, which boasts the first-in-the-South primary.

A Democratic National Committee (DNC) official urged calm among the candidates and state parties, cautioning that a number of scenarios still exist that may prevent such an electoral train wreck.

“This is not the first time that a state legislature has set its primary on a date outside DNC party rules,” DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton said. “As with similar situations in the past, the DNC is working closely with the state party to look at the alternatives for proceeding in accordance with the rules on or after Feb. 5.”

Florida Democratic spokesman Mark Bubriski agreed that there were still alternatives available, adding that the party has almost a month to submit the deadline for providing its delegate nomination process.

“We’re looking at our various options,” Bubriski said.

One option is making the Jan. 29 date a non-binding caucus or straw poll, much like Washington, D.C. did in 2004. In this case, Florida Democrats could choose to pay for their own primary at a later date. Preliminary, very conservative estimates put the cost of such a move at a minimum of $10 million.

Or, Bubriski said, the party could just accept the early date as is.

In the latter scenario, a number of questions arise as to whether candidates would take the gamble to campaign in the Sunshine State because of Florida’s role as a veritable cash cow, or whether they would honor the DNC’s rules and abstain from campaigning in the crucial swing state until after the primaries.

“These are concerns we have for sure,” Bubriski said.

Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said he was expecting Florida to make this move, adding that he is not concerned.

“This is not the time for South Carolina to make a move,” Dawson said. “We’ll wait to see what everybody else does.”

The South Carolina GOP has the option to move its primary up to 24 hours before other states because it puts on its own primary.

But Dawson said South Carolina would continue to play a major role in the process because of its history. Republican candidates who win the Palmetto State primary end up winning the White House, Dawson said.

Carolyn Fowler, South Carolina Democratic Party chairwoman, said she thinks the move is not necessarily bad for her state, but bad for the process because it puts more emphasis on big-money, big-media states.

A number of the Democratic presidential campaigns were contacted Thursday afternoon, but by press time, only Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama’s  (Ill.) campaigns had commented.

“We don’t have any say in what the primary schedule is, but we intend to campaign in any state that holds a primary or a caucus,” a Clinton spokesman said.

“Barack Obama has received an enthusiastic response to his message of change in Florida and we look forward to continuing our dialogue with Floridians in the months to come,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “The DNC and the Florida state party will arbitrate this and we will compete on the final field vigorously.”