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updated 4/3/2008 2:25:09 PM ET 2008-04-03T18:25:09

A Republican Party rules committee voted Wednesday to allow small states to hold nominating contests before big states in 2012, which would preserve the traditional roles of Iowa and New Hampshire as the earliest voting states.

Larger states would be placed into three groups that would rotate the dates of their nominating contests.

With this year's GOP nominee chosen, Republicans already are moving to regain control of the presidential primary calendar four years from now. Ohio GOP Chairman Robert Bennett, who developed the plan, said a coordinated primary calendar is necessary because so many states were moving their primaries earlier.

"Nobody wants a national primary," Bennett said in a telephone interview from the GOP meeting near Albuquerque, N.M. "When you have a national primary you eliminate retail politics. You eliminate the ability of candidates to sit in somebody's living room and talk to them."

Bennett said he accepted the special early voting status for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina as a political reality he cannot change.

This year, Iowa started the voting with its caucuses on Jan. 3, and more than 20 states staged a de facto national primary on Feb. 5.

Traditional early voting status challenged
Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis said Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn't be allowed to vote first just because they have in the past.

"I also don't think the small state exemption makes sense," said Anuzis, whose state broke party rules by holding a Jan. 15 primary.

"You allow these small states to have a disproportionate impact," he said. "Because of the perception and the media attention that 20 small states will get, you risk being irrelevant."

The rules panel approved the plan by a 28-12 vote. The full Republican National Committee will consider the proposal at its meeting in August. The final rules for the 2012 primary calendar will be set at the party's national convention this summer in Minnesota.

Under the plan, Iowa and New Hampshire could hold the earliest contests, starting Feb. 1. South Carolina and Nevada could go next.

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A group of 20 small states and U.S. territories could start holding nominating contests during the third full week of February. The first group of larger states would be allowed to start holding their contests during the first full week of March.

The second group of larger states would have to wait until the fourth week of March and the final group would have to wait until April.

Problems with this year's primary calendars
Both political parties lost control of their primary calendars this year, with states violating party rules by holding early votes. The Republicans penalized five sates by stripping them of half their delegates to the national convention: New Hampshire; South Carolina; Michigan; Florida; and Wyoming.

The penalties, which could still be overturned at the convention, did not affect the outcome of the Republican race, as Sen. John McCain clinched the nomination March 4.

The Democrats, meanwhile, penalized Florida and Michigan by stripping them of all their delegates for holding early primaries. Now, with the Democratic nomination still in doubt, Democratic leaders are trying to find a way to seat the delegates from those states.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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