Earlier Florida primary could blindside candidates

Published April 28, 2007

COLUMBIA, S.C. - A slew of presidential candidates and hundreds of journalists descended this week on South Carolina, showering attention on what nearly everybody is describing as the first-in-the-South primary state.

Few of these politicos have grasped that Florida is about to crash the Palmetto State's party with a Jan. 29 Sunshine State primary.

"It's Jan. 29th?" said a startled Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, campaigning in Columbia on Friday. He then began musing aloud about the need to hire staff for Florida.

Republican and Democratic insiders are aware that Florida has been talking about scheduling its primary earlier than its traditional March election date, but it appears few realize Florida is poised to schedule its election for the same date as South Carolina's Jan. 29 Democratic primary, and before South Carolina's GOP primary, set for Feb. 2.

Florida's determination to be a key player in the presidential nominating process is not going over well in South Carolina, where the parties, not the state, organize their primaries.

"If people start jumping in front of us and making us less relevant, that really is smashing us in the nose, " said Joe Erwin, outgoing South Carolina Democratic chairman. "If they move their date up in Florida, who's to say our date won't change, too?"

South Carolina Republicans have held the first Southern Republican primary since 1980, and state GOP chairman Katon Dawson was blunt: "We have a historical place in presidential politics and we are going to retain that at all costs, " he said.

The Jan. 29 Florida date is not a done deal, but the state Senate passed an election bill with that date Friday, sending it to the House, which also supports the date. Gov. Charlie Crist is on board, too, and dismissed concerns about criticism from places like South Carolina.

"All I care about is Florida. It puts Florida first, and I think it's great, " Crist said. "It just gives Florida a greater voice, and it focuses those who run for president on the issues that are important to our fellow Floridians, like a national catastrophic fund."

National politicians fear a domino effect: To stay ahead of Florida's likely new date, South Carolina moves its primary date even earlier, interfering with other states, chiefly New Hampshire.

New Hampshire has a cherished history as the first primary state, and to protect that status Secretary of State William Gardner can schedule the primary as early as late 2007. Currently, it's expected to be Jan. 22.

"I haven't seen anything in Florida that would threaten our tradition, " Gardner said, noting that Florida was an early primary state in the 1970s. "I understand the argument that's being made down there completely."

The Democratic and Republican national committees are promising to punish any state that moves its primary before Feb. 5 by reducing party delegates to the national convention and sanctioning candidates who campaign or raise funds there.

Florida leaders are unbowed.

"If (DNC chairman) Howard Dean thinks the candidates are not going to campaign in Florida, he's got to be insane - not with all the Florida money at stake, " said state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, sponsor of the early primary bill.

Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.