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Primary committee plays chicken and decides to wait a week to set a date

Scheduling Florida's presidential preference primary became a game of chicken Friday as the committee charged with setting the date decided to wait a week to make a decision, giving it time to see what other states have done.

"Call it what you will, Florida wants to have relevance,'' said Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the non-voting member of the Presidential Preference Primary Committee. The panel of six legislators, former Gov. Bob Martinez and an advisor to Gov. Rick Scott met for 20 minutes Friday but postponed a decision until Sept. 30.

Complicating their decision is the fact that Arizona has broken the primary calendar rules set by the political parties and set its date for Feb. 28, the same day as South Carolina, which is expected to move its date up earlier. Missouri has also broken the calendar rules and set Feb. 7 as its primary. Michigan is poised to move its date into early February as well. All states must report their primary dates to the parties by Oct. 1.

"Florida wants to be a player and if you want to be a player you're going to have to change your primary date,'' said former Sen. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat and member of the committee.

The Republican National Commitee allows only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina to vote in February. Violators are subject to losing half their delegates, which could make them half as influential during the nominating vote at the party's national convention -- set for Tampa in August.

The Democratic National Party has also warned Florida that if its primary is held before March 6, violating the national party rule, the state will also lose its delegates. The result, Florida Democrats have said, is they are not likely to participate in the primary but instead pick delegates to their national convention in county caucuses held in June 2012. The decision won't likely affect the 2012 Democratic nomination because President Barack Obama isn't expected to face any serious challenge from within the party.

But Florida officials -- from Gov. Rick Scott to Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon -- have repeatedly said they would believe Florida can have more relevance as an early primary state than it would have with a full complement of delegates at the convention, when the winner will be already secure. They appear to all be in agreement that Florida should designate itself as the fifth primary.

Former Gov. Bob Martinez asked whether there was an advantage in waiting week to decide the date because, if Florida set its dates now, other states may change.

Sen. John Thrasher asked what South Carolina may plan to do and aid his preference is to have it immediately after South Carolina "or as close to South Carolina as we could."

Browning said that South Carolina's primary is customarily on a Saturday and may be rescheduled for as early as Feb. 4 but is currently posted as Feb. 28.

Lawson urged the committee to keep Florida a player because of the state's electoral diversity and its history of close elections make it a crucial state.

"Whatever we decide I would hope we do not run in front of the traditional states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,'' he said. "It's also important for Florida to maintain its proper place in the early primaries because Florida is the largest swing state in the country,'' he said. He noted that Florida has 29 electoral votes while the next closest swing state, Ohio, only has 19.

Sen. John Thrasher agreed Florida should not disrupt the four early states but be allowed to be the fifth primary. Reps. Carlos Lopez Cantera, Sen. Rene Garcia  and Rep. Seth McKeel all agreed.

Joining the meeting by phone was former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, Reps. Carlos Lopez Cantera, R-Miami and Seth McKeel, R-Orlando, Sens. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, Rene Garcia, R-Miami, and Gary Siplin, D-Orlando.