Jockeying by states snarls GOP primary plans

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / February 23, 2011

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WASHINGTON — More than a third of the states have early Republican presidential primary elections scheduled next year that would violate national party rules, throwing the campaign calendar into disarray and risking sanctions that would diminish their influence at the nominating convention.

“The calendar itself is total chaos,’’ said Saul Anuzis, a Republican National Committee member from Michigan who helped craft the Republican National Committee policies that protect Iowa and New Hampshire as the first states in the primary lineup. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.’’

Nineteen states are violating party rules with primaries or caucuses scheduled before March 1, 2012, as state GOP leaders seek to boost their state’s influence by being among the first to hold primary votes. The move puts them at odds with national GOP leaders, who seek an orderly and extended primary season.

While some states are willing to bend to the national party’s wishes, others are at least initially insisting on keeping early dates. If conflicts over the schedule are not resolved soon, there will be a repeat of 2008, when states that leapfrogged over others to claim an earlier primary date generated acrimony among party leaders and confusion among voters and candidates.

Already, the unsettled situation is preventing prospective candidates from crafting a campaign strategy beyond the four states that both parties have pledged will go first: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

For candidates such as former governor Mitt Romney, who is detail-oriented and has spent three years laying the groundwork for a presidential run, the uncertainty complicates his plans on where to direct resources. Romney, who is widely expected to announce a run for president this spring, declined to comment.

National Republicans worry that having primaries bunched together at the outset would benefit well-financed, organized candidates who could quickly boost their delegate count in the first few weeks and essentially end the race before being properly vetted. That would also prevent a lesser-known candidate from catching fire.

It is exactly this prospect that national Republicans were attempting to avoid by starting the nominating process later and extending it through several months.

“Our biggest concern was that we’d end up with a flawed candidate,’’ said Steve Scheffler, an influential Republican National Committee member from Iowa. “It gives credible candidates more of an opportunity to make their case.’’

Iowa is scheduled to hold its caucus Feb. 6, but with other states seeking similar early timing, Iowa may have to change that.

“If we have to move to December, we will,’’ Scheffler said in an interview in his West Des Moines office, which is adorned with elephant figurines.

Bill Gardner, secretary of state of New Hampshire, said he would do everything it takes to preserve the Granite State’s coveted first-in-the-nation primary slot — even if that means moving its date to this year.

“We’re not going to give up this tradition to a state that has better weather or is more powerful,’’ said Gardner, who expects to set the New Hampshire primary date in the fall, after all the other states are done posturing. “We have our position, and we’re going to preserve our tradition.’’

The controversy is part of what has become a quadrennial political game over who gets the coveted early primary dates. In 2008, in what both parties said was a process that spun out of control, the nominating contests began just after New Year’s Day, with many candidates spending their December holidays trying to campaign in Iowa.

To prevent a replay, Democratic and Republican national party officials agreed that only four states should be allowed to hold elections in February 2012. All other states would have to wait until at least March to hold their elections or risk losing half of their delegates.

Nine of the 19 states with unauthorized primaries scheduled before March 1 are considering proposals that would put them in compliance. The other 10 states have no such plans.

Florida is taking the most aggressive position, with a primary that is currently scheduled on Jan. 31, 2012 — before any other state. Despite pleas from national Republicans, state party officials are threatening to hold firm. That could prompt the national party to punish the state by cutting the number of delegates it has — an ironic outcome, because the Republican National Convention is being held in Tampa.

“The earlier the better,’’ David Bishop, a spokesman for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, said of the primary date. “And why not go to a mega-state that will be a swing state in the general election?’’

The Florida Legislature, which begins its session next month and is controlled by Republicans, would have to change a state law in order to move the primary.

So far, other key Republicans — including the state House speaker and US Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star in the party — are united against changing the primary date.

If Florida Republicans keep their date, it would create a conundrum for candidates: shun an important state or go against the wishes of national Republicans and mount a campaign in the Sunshine State.

The conflict mirrors the one leading up to the 2008 presidential nomination. The Republican National Committee said that no state could go before Feb. 5, but seven ultimately disobeyed.

Five of those states — New Hampshire, Wyoming, Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida — were penalized by having half of their delegates stripped. The other two states — Iowa and Nevada — got to keep their delegates because their caucuses were nonbinding.

The 2008 Democratic National Committee also said that no state could go before Feb. 5 but carved out exemptions for New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada. To punish Michigan and Florida, the DNC initially stripped all of their delegates.

Although Democrats generally avoided the penalized states, Republicans still spent ample time in the states where only half the delegates would be awarded at the convention.

In the end, neither contest was close enough for the delegate counts to matter at the convention.

“This is a lot like three-dimensional chess,’’ said John Brabender, a longtime adviser to Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and likely presidential candidate. “It’s going to be a moving target for a while. Until it becomes more of known quantity, people are going to focus on those early states because everybody knows they ain’t going anywhere.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at