RNC May Face Messy Delegates Issue

If the GOP presidential race is not effectively over following the South Carolina primary, it could easily drag on for months — with potential confusion about delegate counts. Both Florida and Arizona have violated Republican National Committee rules by awarding their delegates "winner-take-all" before April 1 — which will likely lead to rules challenges, should the delegate count matter.

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For all the attention that South Carolina is getting, at stake next weekend are just 25 delegates to the GOP nominating convention. Ultimately, the winning candidate will need more than 1,100. Republican Party officials have adopted new rules to try to prolong the battle for those delegates.

NPR's David Welna was at the GOP's winter meeting in New Orleans and sent us this report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It's been years since Republicans have had a long, drawn-out fight the way Democrats have had before settling on their party's presidential nominee. That's because Democrats were delegates only on a proportional basis in each state. In GOP elections, though, it's been winner take all, making it easier for a frontrunner to quickly build up an insurmountable lead. That is until this year.

The Republican National Committee has drawn up new guidelines stipulating that any state holding a contest before April 1st has to reward its delegates on a proportional basis. Adherence to that new rule or rather the failure by some states to do so proved a sore spot at the RNC's winter meeting last week in New Orleans.

BRUCE ASH: There are visitors in the room and there are press here, so if we conduct ourselves today, we need to be cognizant of that.

WELNA: That's RNC Rules Committee chairman Bruce Ash of Arizona convening a meeting to deal with rules breakers. At the top of the list is Florida, its decision to hold its primary January 31st forced Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to go earlier as well. The price Florida pays for doing so is losing half its delegates. But Florida is also holding a winner-take-all primary, essentially ignoring the rule, that any contest before April 1st has to proportional.

Tennessee committeeman John Ryder rose at the rules meeting to demand additional sanctions for Florida.

JOHN RYDER: Our feeling is that, look, if we go to the state of Florida for the convention this summer, the state legislators in Florida will expect us to follow the laws of the state of Florida. When they come to our convention in Tampa, we expect them to follow the rules of the Republican National Committee for our convention. They have not followed the rules. I think they should receive the penalty.

WELNA: And so, Florida will be punished by giving its delegates to the Tampa National Convention inferior seating and housing and taking away their guest passes. Still, Florida is getting what its state legislators wanted, a potentially decisive role in the outcome of the nomination fight. Lenny Curry is Florida's Republican state chairman.

LENNY CURRY: I see the winner of Florida ultimately likely becoming our nominee.

WELNA: And if Mitt Romney comes out on top in South Carolina and then prevails in Florida, Romney's supporter and Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis says that could be the turning point.

SAUL ANUZIS: I think most people will see it as being pretty much over. He won't have the delegates, but the momentum and the, you know, infrastructure that is out there will basically have moved forward to the point of deciding he's our nominee.

WELNA: But others at the RNC winter meeting said it's too soon to say whether Florida will amount to a coronation. Ryan Call is the state GOP chairman for Colorado which holds its caucuses the week after Florida's contest.

RYAN CALL: Even after Florida, only 5 percent of the delegates will have been awarded or allocated. And certainly, while this is often a game of momentum, it's also a long process where the candidates need to win the confidence of voters throughout the country.

WELNA: And New York State GOP chairman Ed Cox pointed out that 11 states are holding their nominating contests the first Tuesday in March.

EDWARD COX: And all those Super Tuesday states which pour 135 out of the 1,140 that you need in order to get the nomination, all those are proportional. So, there may be an incentive for - regardless of what happens in South Carolina - for people to go on to stay in it and to see what happens.

WELNA: Because building up a decisive lead this year will be harder than ever for a GOP frontrunner. Some party officials say Republicans could end up with what Democrats had four years ago, a contest lasting until the final primary in June.

David Welna, NPR News, New Orleans.

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