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Four years ago, Florida played a key role in choosing the Republican presidential nominee. The state held an early primary in violation of party rules. Next month, Florida Republicans are poised to do it again, breaking the rules with an early primary, only this time their decision could confuse the race, rather than clarify it. NPR's S.V. Date reports.

S.V. DATE, BYLINE: To understand why political parties set rules for presidential primaries and why states break those rules, it's helpful to appreciate what it means for the campaigns to descend on a small state like Iowa or New Hampshire. Beyond the glad-handing and ring-kissing of retail politics, there's also the sound of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

DATE: Millions of dollars spent at restaurants, on campaign workers, radio and television advertising, all injected into the local economy, which helps explain why South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly is so upset at mega-state Florida, which moved its primary date to January 31st to increase its influence. That forced South Carolina and other official early states to move even earlier in January to preserve their place in line.

CHAD CONNELLY: No candidate's going to ignore Florida, no matter what. And so their whole premise of compressing the calendar and creating this chaos was that they want to be more relevant. I thought that was just silly. They already are relevant.

DATE: When it comes to flouting primary rules, Florida is a repeat offender. When the state did this last time, in 2008, Arizona Senator John McCain was the beneficiary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Thank you, Florida Republicans, for bringing a former Florida resident across the finish line first.

DATE: It was a winner-take-all contest, which gave McCain all of the state's GOP delegates, even though he barely won a third of the votes cast. The second- and third-place finishers got nothing. McCain's win triggered his even-bigger delegate haul a week later on Super Tuesday, which featured many similar winner-take-all events. In effect, McCain locked up the nomination that night. But later that year?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Change has come to America.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

DATE: McCain couldn't carry Florida, and lost decisively to Barack Obama. Many conservatives blamed that compressed schedule packed with winner-take-all contests, the exact opposite of the proportional primaries on the Democratic side that drew out Mr. Obama's race against Hillary Clinton into early summer. Rob Ritchie heads the elections reform group Fairvote.org.

ROB RITCHIE: Winner-take-all kind sort of short-changes that process. It can make a front-runner become the inevitable nominee more quickly than, in a sense, the party is ready for him to win.

DATE: Enter the Republican National Committee, which in 2010, wrote a new rule to slow things down. The early states - Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina - would not vote until February. The other states could start March 6th, but only if they awarded delegates proportionally, limiting their influence.

States that wanted winner-take-all had to wait until April 1st. Rule-breaking states would lose half of their delegates. Enter again Florida, which saw no use for that schedule. Florida GOP chairman Lenny Curry.

LENNY CURRY: We ought to go early, and we ought to be by ourselves so that our voice has a much larger impact due to the size and the diversity of our state.

DATE: Just as in 2008, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina all moved their dates to stay ahead of Florida. But Florida did something else the others did not: insisting, despite the new rule, on winner-take-all. It's that second violation that really has South Carolina's Chad Connelly livid, because the rules do not automatically impose any additional penalty.

CONNELLY: So they need to lose all the delegates, or they need to be proportionally allocated - something that makes them go, wow, we don't want to do to this.

DATE: That's not likely to happen. Party officials and observers believe Florida, the host for next summer's GOP convention, will escape any further consequence - that is, unless the Republican race winds up close and the delegate count actually starts to matter. Because come summer, party rules allow any Republican voter in Florida to challenge the state's winner-take-all scheme at the Tampa convention, potentially complicating and confusing the nomination itself.

John Ryder is an RNC member from Tennessee and was on the committee that wrote the latest rules.

JOHN RYDER: Let's suppose that a person supporting, say, Ron Paul says, look, you know, my candidate was entitled to 10 percent of the 50 delegates. We're entitled to five delegates, and I'm going to file a challenge asserting that we get our five delegates. Yeah, I think that's a very plausible scenario.

DATE: And that possibility, Ryder thinks, could dramatically lessen the momentum and media value of winning next month's Florida primary.

RYDER: Anybody reporting the results from Florida would have to award the delegates won on their January 31st primary with an asterisk, and say: But, it could be subject to a challenge.

DATE: In other words, Florida could find itself making much less of a difference than if it had simply followed the rules.

S.V. Date, NPR News, Washington.

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