(Updated 3:30 p.m. EDT, May 21)
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) fired the starting gun that could set off another mad dash of states jostling for early dates to choose nominees for the White House.
Crist May 21 signed the Florida Legislature's plan to move up the Sunshine State's 2008 presidential primary to Jan. 29, leapfrogging a critical mass of states gravitating to primaries on what's becoming known as "Super-Duper Tuesday" on Feb. 5.
Florida is defying threats of penalties from Republican and Democratic parties for jumping ahead in the pecking order of states choosing presidential nominees, behind voters only in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wyoming.
Florida's fast break is making an already complicated process even more uncertain. It "may be the hole in the dike," said Andrew Smith, an expert on presidential elections at the University of New Hampshire. Other states - including New Hampshire, with the nation's earliest primary, and South Carolina - could scramble to move up their dates to choose nominees even earlier, he predicted.
In what is shaping up as the earliest start to a presidential election in history, 13 states already are on board to vote for presidential candidates or hold nominating caucuses on Feb. 5 - also Fat Tuesday, the final day of Mardi Gras. Three more - Colorado, Georgia and Illinois - are a governor's signature away from joining the stampede to the Feb. 5 date.
At least 23 states in all are angling for that date in what critics of the rush now are calling "Stupid Tuesday." That number far outpaces the 1984 "Super Tuesday" that involved 14 states. Only Kansas has bowed out of the frenzy by canceling plans for its 2008 presidential primary. Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota will vote dead last on June 3, though Montana and New Mexico are still considering chiming in earlier through caucuses.
New Hampshire already is eyeing moving up its Jan. 22 primary date in light of Florida's action. New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner has not ruled out scheduling the country's first presidential primary before the end of 2007, telling The New York Times "it's not beyond the realm of possibility." New Hampshire law requires its presidential primary to fall on a Tuesday a week or more before any "similar election."
Florida's action also could cause consternation in South Carolina, which had been promised the mantle of being the first Southern state to hold presidential primaries in 2008 and would have to share the Jan. 29 date of its Democratic primary with Florida. South Carolina's GOP primary is scheduled for Feb. 2.
In all, as many as 30 states including California, New York and Illinois could weigh in with Democratic and Republican presidential picks by Feb. 5, 2008. By comparison, nine states had chosen nominees by the first Tuesday in February 2004, sending President Bush and U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on to their party's nominations.
"No question it's out of control," said political strategist Donna Brazile, who chairs the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute (VRI), created after the 2000 elections to monitor voter issues. "It's in the hands of state party chairmen and governors," said Brazile, who was the campaign manager for Vice President Gore's run for president in 2000.
Florida zeroed in on the Jan. 29 date after concluding that its customary second Tuesday in March primary date was too late and that sharing the stage on Super-Duper Tuesday wouldn't let its diverse population have enough say in choosing the next president.
For violating national party rules, Florida's Democratic and GOP parties could be denied sending half their delegates to the parties' nominating conventions next summer. The Democratic Party's rules are stiffer. Democratic candidates face penalties for campaigning in Florida.
Florida Democrats are considering options to avoid running afoul of party rules, including holding a caucus on a later date to determine how to allocate the delegates, said Mark Bubriski, a state party spokesman. "We really don't know what we will do."
The national parties' penalties could be hollow threats. Democratic presidential front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois both have indicated they intend to campaign in Florida. And by the time the Democrats hold their nominating convention in August in Denver and the GOP meets in Minneapolis-St. Paul in September, the primary races will be over and both parties likely will get behind their nominees, so it likely won't matter how many delegates Florida sends.
The impetus to shake up the presidential primary calendar was complaints that New Hampshire, with the first primary, and Iowa, with the first caucus, had disproportionate influence on the presidential field but failed to reflect the diversity of the rest of the country. A recent analysis by the Associated Press
found that both states are 90 percent white, making them among the least diverse. Instead, it named Illinois No. 1 in most closely reflecting the national makeup of the United States. Illinois is one of the states moving up its primary to Feb. 5.
At the end of the presidential primary calendar are South Dakota, Montana and New Mexico, sharing June. 3. Voters in New Mexico, home of the only sitting governor running for president, Democrat Bill Richardson, will go to the polls June 3, but Democratic party faithful will have their caucus Feb. 5 to weigh in on the presidential contenders and determine how to designate the state's 38 delegates during the convention.
Proposals in Montana and South Dakota to move up the date died in the legislatures, primarily because of the cost. But in Montana, there's still a movement afoot to have caucuses before the June 3 primary. "It's not dead yet," said Eric Stern, senior counselor to Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Kansas became the only state to drop out of the primary race when the Legislature adjourned in May without setting aside the $1.6 million needed for a presidential primary in 2008. Both parties, however, are still considering holding caucuses.
Skipping a presidential primary is not all that unusual in years in which an incumbent is running. In 2004, when President Bush sought his second term, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Washington all nixed holding presidential primaries, said Jennie Drage Bowser, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, who tracks presidential primary legislation
. Bowser predicted that fewer states would sit on the sidelines in the 2008 contest because neither an incumbent or a vice president is running. "The race is more wide open."