Florida's futile rush to be first

Florida now intends to hold its primaries on the last Tuesday in January instead of the second Tuesday in March. Gov. Crist should veto House Bill 537 and ask legislators to return Florida to its senses when they meet in special session next month.

Published May 15, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - No one now making laws here seems conscious of how it backfired when Florida last tried to make itself mighty in preconvention presidential politics.

The plan was to assure the 1972 Democratic nomination for Edmund Muskie. George Wallace won the Florida primary instead, destroying what was left of Muskie's campaign after the snows and the tears of New Hampshire. George McGovern's nomination and Richard Nixon's re-election ensued.

Although that wasn't so terribly long ago, no one who had a hand in it is still part of the process. Gov. Charlie Crist was in high school, House Speaker Marco Rubio was in diapers, and of the remaining legislators, only 53 were even eligible to vote in Florida. The rest were too young, living elsewhere or yet to be born.

Florida now intends to hold its primaries on the last Tuesday in January instead of the second Tuesday in March. House Bill 537, an 80-page mishmash, sits on Crist's desk. He should veto it and ask legislators to return Florida to its senses when they meet in special session next month.

The primary schedule was already out of hand with 22 other states scheming or having decided to hold caucuses and primaries on Feb. 5 - six months before the first nominating convention. New Hampshire, jealous of its divine right to the first primary and resentful of two states planning earlier caucuses, is threatening to vote in December. Florida and the South Carolina Democrats cannot count on keeping Jan. 29 to themselves. Even if they do, national party policy may result in the Democratic votes being nonbinding.

As the Washington Post's David Broder accurately summed up, "This way lies madness." On Feb. 6 - the day after the primaries in California, Texas, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and 17 other states - America will likely find itself with presumptive nominees who won on the strength of their glitter, glitz and engorged campaign treasuries rather than on having proved their ability to speak truth to power and sense to voters. There would be no chance for any promising newcomer to break into the pack, let alone break out of it.

It is also possible, but unlikely, that the primaries could produce no one candidate in either party with even a respectable plurality of delegate votes. A happier result could scarcely be imagined, unless it were to abolish the primaries altogether. It would be more rational to have the parties in Congress nominate the candidates.

One thing terribly wrong with the primaries is the herd instinct of the media to pronounce "winners" and "losers" based on the media's own expectations. But it is as naive to expect self-restraint on the media's part as to urge common sense on Florida and other states craving to throw their weight around.

The schedule Florida is abandoning was set in 1971 at the urging of House Speaker Richard A. Pettigrew, who believed that Florida needed a centrist like Muskie to win its primary and hold the state in November against Nixon, who had defeated Hubert Humphrey (and Wallace) in 1968. Florida's primaries had been meaningless, coming late in the year and attracting few candidates. Pettigrew's law required all presumed candidates to be listed unless they disavowed the ambition.

The real winners, as it turned out, were the Republicans. Wallace, running as a Democrat again, embarked on a strident antibusing campaign just as federal court desegregation orders were beginning to take effect in Florida. The Republicans, encouraged by the White House, took advantage of an early 1972 legislative session to put a nonbinding but emotionally charged antibusing straw vote on the March primary ballot. Seeing the danger from Wallace, some Democrats had already called for the primary to be changed. But Pettigrew refused. He insisted on the right of the voters "to choose from a complete slate of contenders instead of from among only those contenders who deem it politically expedient to run in Florida."

Wallace won with 41.6 percent. Muskie ran not second but fourth, behind Humphrey and Henry Jackson, with only 8.9 percent. The media pronounced him politically dead. McGovern, who had not been expected to run well in this conservative state, suffered nothing from his fifth place finish.

Pettigrew's primary finally paid off four years later, giving Jimmy Carter the opportunity to dispose of Wallace in a Southern state. Meanwhile, President Gerald Ford, threatened by Ronald Reagan, gave Florida a new Bay Pines veterans hospital. But then other states began to steal a march, to the point where the two distinguished former Florida governors who ran for president -Reubin Askew in 1984 and Bob Graham in 2004 - were forced out before their own people had a chance to vote.

But that won't be fixed by yet another futile rush to be first. Those who ignore history are almost always condemned to repeat it. Suppose, for example, that the Republican front-runners fracture the establishment vote, leaving Sam Brownback to be pronounced the Florida winner?

It's your move, governor.

Martin Dyckman, a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times, is author of Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Gov. LeRoy Collins.