Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill Monday moving Florida’s 2008 presidential primary up to Jan. 29, leapfrogging several other states in a change that could dramatically alter the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating campaigns.
The move will put Florida's primary behind only the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and on the same day as South Carolina's Democratic primary.
Florida's early election could have huge implications in the Feb. 5 primaries scheduled in a dozen other states, including New York and California.
A win in Florida is such a big prize because the state is seen as a microcosm of the nation with its diverse population, so it shows how a candidate might do in other states. Florida's electoral votes decided the disputed 2000 presidential election.
"The candidates who finish first in Florida would presumably be the strongest candidates the party could put up in the November election," said Merle Black, a politics professor at Emory University. "And in building momentum for a campaign, the candidates that do well in Florida would get intense media coverage leading into the next week's events in early February."
Paper trail in Florida
The bill Crist plans to sign also requires a verifiable paper trail for all voting machines throughout Florida. Currently, 15 of Florida's 67 counties use paperless touch-screen voting machines. The remaining counties use optical scan machines where a voter marks a paper ballot with a pencil and it is electronically scanned.
Florida's voting system attracted national attention in 2000 when dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads on punch card ballots held up a final count in the presidential election. Florida was eventually decided by 537 votes after the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, handing the election to George W. Bush. The state has since banned the punch cards.
National political attention is back on Florida with the primary move.
"This is going to require the serious candidates to spend very, very large amounts of money and time in Florida," Black said. "If you can't compete in Florida, that's going to be a sign that you're not a serious contender."
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has threatened to take away half of Florida's delegates if the primary is held before Feb. 5. The Democratic National Committee said the state would lose 50 percent of its delegates and all its superdelegates. The DNC also said it would penalize candidates who campaign in Florida for a primary earlier than Feb. 5 by making them ineligible for receiving any of the state's delegates.
Worth the price
State Republican leaders say it's worth the cost.
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer said it's more important that the state have a louder voice in who leads the country and receives more attention from candidates between now and Jan. 29.
The Florida Democratic Party is still in discussions with the DNC over how to avoid penalties such as possibly making the early primary nonbinding and holding a caucus later to elect a candidate.
DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton said the rules are in place to keep states from constantly "leapfrogging over each other" to gain a greater say in selecting a president.
South Carolina Republicans, for instance, are now considering moving up their primary ahead of its tentatively scheduled Feb. 2 date in order to keep it the first GOP primary in the South.
"It's always been said the Republican primary in South Carolina is the primary that makes presidents," said Neal Thigpen, a political scientist with Francis Marion University in South Carolina.
Thigpen said Florida's earlier primary now "blunts" the lure of South Carolina's elections, taking away what has traditionally been a bright spotlight there.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler said an early primary in Florida would not diminish her state's role in the process because candidates have to bring a personal touch there.
"South Carolina's a state in which candidates can have a real impact because it's small. In Florida, candidates have to spend millions of dollars on TV to win," Fowler said. "Here, they can come and get to know the voters."
Fowler, the former co-chair of the national party's rules committee, said she expects Florida Democrats to work out an alternative date with the Democratic National Committee.
Candidates don't seem to be threatened by the potential penalties from the national parties.
Clinton heads to Miami
Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to campaign in the Miami area Monday at the same time the governor scheduled the bill signing.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama will also continue to campaign in Florida, said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
On Friday, the early primary was the first thing Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani talked about during an Orlando luncheon.
"I know how important your state is," the former New York mayor said. "Your primary is also going to be a very, very early primary. You're going have lots of presidential candidates here. It's going to do wonders for your economy because we're going to spend millions and millions of dollars on television."
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain also plans to be a frequent visitor.
"We're going to have a very aggressive campaign in the state. You'll see more of Sen. McCain," said spokesman Terry Nelson.
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Scott Brennan said Florida's early primary adds to the lure of his state's caucus "as the first in the nation."
"It's compressed the schedule so much that it puts the candidates in a position where they cannot have a misstep," Brennan said. "If they underperform in Iowa, whether in reality or in perception, they may not be able to come back."
The early primaries will also make money an even bigger factor than in past years, said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.
"The one certainty is that the front-loading of the primary season will winnow the field rapidly. In a few months, we're not going to see a dozen candidates on the Republican side because they're not going to be able to afford the cover charge," Pitney said.