Florida closer to moving up its primary date

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Defying national Republican and Democratic party threats, Florida lawmakers in a House committee Thursday unanimously approved a proposal to push the state's presidential primary to late January.

If the bill (HB 537) becomes law, Florida's primary -- currently in March, when it's virtually irrelevant -- would take place either seven days after New Hampshire's, or on Feb. 5, whichever comes first. New Hampshire has not set its date.

An identical bill has been filed in the Senate.

With states around the country, including California, jockeying for position to challenge the traditional dominance of the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary, Florida legislators on both sides of the aisle don't want to be left behind. They believe a state as large and diverse as Florida should play a fundamental role in the nomination process.

And they believe candidates would then have to pay more attention to Florida's needs -- such as the idea of a national hurricane catastrophe fund, which Florida supports but has so far failed to gain traction nationally.

The national parties want to prevent a nationwide arms race for the earliest primary. Both parties could punish states like Florida that move their primary earlier than Feb. 5 by taking away delegates to the nominating convention.

The Democratic Party could even punish candidates who campaign or advertise in states that move their primaries earlier than Feb. 5 by essentially keeping them from getting the state's vote.

Those threats pale in comparison to the influence Florida could gain, the bill's sponsor, Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, told the House Ethics and Elections Committee.

"I think that having 67 less individuals attend five days in Minneapolis is a very, very small price to pay to increase Florida's relevance on the national stage," said Rivera, referring to the number of Florida Republican delegates that could be lost at the site of the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House Democratic leader, said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean called him to say the move could have consequences. But Gelber said it wouldn't make sense to punish Democrats for the actions of a Republican-controlled Legislature. Florida Democratic Party Chair Karen Thurman also wrote the House committee members in a letter, warning them not to push the primary any earlier than Feb. 5 to avoid potential backlash.

"I don't have any constituents in the DNC," Gelber said. "I only have constituents in my district. They would like to be more relevant."

According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll of 1,003 Florida voters, 46 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to move up the primary, compared to 36 percent opposed to it, and 19 percent unsure.

Lawmakers and some experts think the national parties are bluffing, and would never take away a candidate's delegates if it meant hurting a party's chances overall in a national election.

Some committee members expressed concern that giving a state the size of Florida a greater say earlier in the nominating process could shut out presidential hopefuls with less money.

"I think we should all recognize that money does have too much (influence), and that's problematic," said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota. "I don't think the balance of that argument ... weighs against this."