Fla. Moves Up Its Primary Date

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Florida wants to be no lower than fifth on the calendar of presidential nominating events in 2012, and Friday its Legislature moved to hold its primary on Jan. 31. That is expected to move the Iowa caucuses into the first week of the year.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. It's become a regular part of the presidential campaign. Every four years, along with the polls and rallies and debates, there's a scramble to see who gets to vote early for the presidential nominees. And today, Florida cut in line.

BLOCK: The state declared it will hold its presidential primary on January 31st, making it first on the list. But the traditional starters, Iowa and New Hampshire have made it clear they will fight to keep their poll position and we may soon see a rush into early January by both states, along with Nevada and South Carolina. Rushing to make sense of all this is NPR's Greg Allen in Miami.

GREG ALLEN: After decades of explosive growth, Florida is now virtually tied with New York as the nation's third most populous state. It's 19 million people also reflect the national population shares for Hispanics and African-Americans. It has a large rural population and is evenly split between Republican and Democratic voters. All reasons, according to State Representative Carlos Lopez-Cantera, that it should be one of the first states to hold a presidential primary.

State Representative CARLOS LOPEZ-CANTERA: I think that the 31st is the best date for the state of Florida, will give us the 5th place that we desire and I think that our citizens deserve, in light of the microcosm that our citizens represent of this country.

ALLEN: Lopez-Cantera was on a special commission appointed by Florida's legislature and governor to select a primary date. Today's vote hardly comes as a surprise. Republican leaders who control the legislature and the governor's mansion made clear they had their eye on being the nation's fifth nominating contest. In fact, Republican leaders had been in discussion with their counterparts in South Carolina to coordinate their primaries on February 28th. In the end, however, a move by Arizona, Michigan, Missouri and other states to push up their primaries convinced Florida to jump all the way up to January 31st, ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Matt Moore, the executive director of South Carolina's Republican Party, doesn't like the idea.

MATT MOORE: It's really unfair to voters. It hurts the candidates.

ALLEN: Moore says Florida may siphon off some of the attention candidates pay to the other early states and compressing the schedule may give the voters fewer choices. Four years ago, Florida did something similar. It scheduled a January primary and both parties imposed penalties. Democratic candidates stayed away, but Republicans did not. In the end, Florida's primary helped seal the nomination for Senator John McCain and the party backed down. All Florida delegates were seated at the GOP convention. Florida Republicans are betting that will happen again this time, giving them a big role in choosing the nominee, plus good seats at the convention.

Josh Putnam, a visiting assistant professor at Davidson College who writes a blog, "Frontloading HQ," says Florida may end up with a smaller role than leaders anticipate.

It would be nice to be decisive, but at least, at this point, fifth in line, hey, we've got most of the candidates coming in here ahead of time to address our issues and that's not a bad consolation prize, I suppose.

In Iowa, the Republican Party chairman called Florida leaders arrogant, their action disappointing, but not surprising. In New Hampshire, Secretary of State William Gardner announced the filing period for presidential candidates in his state would commence two weeks from Monday. We cannot rule out the possibility, Gardner says, of conducting the primary before the end of the year. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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