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Florida moves primary right behind N.H. vote

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lawmakers, hoping to give their state more influence in US politics, yesterday moved up the state's presidential primary to the last Tuesday in January.

Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican who has been building a reputation as a moderate in the mold of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, said he would sign the measure, which also orders most touch-screen voting machines to be replaced with equipment that will produce a paper trail.

The Jan. 29 primary date aims to give a larger role on the national stage to the state, which decided the 2000 US presidential election and put George W. Bush in the White House following a five-week legal battle over vote recounts that was ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court.

Moving the primary would put Florida ahead of about a dozen states that have presidential primaries scheduled for Feb. 5.

The rescheduling to earlier dates could wrap up the nominating races early and would favor well-known, well-financed candidates.

"With an earlier presidential primary, Florida will now take its rightful place near the front of the line in determining the next leader of the free world," Crist said.

The measure was opposed by the mainstream national parties.

State lawmakers, however, said Florida, the fourth-most populous state, had been taking a back seat to others by holding its primary in March. The state's primary will now be preceded only by the New Hampshire primary and the caucuses in Iowa and Nevada.

"It is a huge benefit to Florida and the issues that are important to Florida voters," said state Representative David Rivera, a Republican from Miami and sponsor of the bill.

"Now candidates will not only come to Florida to raise money in secluded country clubs and mansions, they are going to have to come and campaign and talk about issues that are relevant."

The new voting machines, to be funded with $28 million in federal money, must be in place for the 2008 presidential elections.

Crist strongly supported the introduction of a paper trail at elections . His predecessor as governor, Jeb Bush, the president's younger brother, had opposed it.

Touch-screen electronic voting was introduced in some counties after the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election.

Crist said the use of optically scanned ballots would alleviate any doubt about an election's outcome.

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