ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
UPDATED: The head of the Republican Party in South Carolina said he is trying to hammer out a deal with Florida GOP officials in an attempt to neutralize the threat posed by Arizona, whose governor is weighing whether to leapfrog ahead on the presidential primary calendar.
South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly told ABC News that he wants to forge an agreement with party officials in Florida to move their primary dates up “in tandem” if Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer decides to schedule her state’s primary in January.
Connelly is pledging that no matter how early Gov. Brewer sets the primary — she is said to be strongly considering Jan. 31 — he will move South Carolina’s date ahead of Arizona’s and, in theory, Florida would cut in front as well. Brewer has until Saturday to decide on the Jan. 31 date.
The point is to keep Arizona behind the two powerhouses. South Carolina remains fiercely protective of its “first in the South” status and Florida is a critical state where the candidates will be spending more and more time. It’s also the state that will play host to the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Connelly said the plan was meant to “calm the waters” of what has become a chaotic primary process, but it’s also a chance to flex some early-state muscle. ”I don’t care what date they pick, we’re going to jump ‘em,” Connelly said in an interview. “We’re going to be the first in the South.”
But Florida Republican Party Communications Director Brian Hughes disputed Connelly’s assertions of a South Carolina-Florida alliance, saying that the state party was bound by the legislature, which has vested the power to choose a primary date with a yet-to-be-formed committee. Before Oct. 1, the committee is to pick a date between the first Tuesday in January and the first Tuesday in March to hold the primary.
“It is not possible for us to work in tandem with anyone because there is a legal process that has to be followed and the legal process hasn’t started yet,” Hughes said in an interview. “No one in Florida can make such an agreement.”
Hughes added that “the Republican Party of Florida and other Republican leaders are interested in” setting a primary date that “reflects the importance that Florida plays in the nation. There’s no path to the White House that doesn’t include winning Florida.”
The current calendar, which is still in a state of flux, has the Iowa Caucuses being held on Feb. 6, the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 14, the Nevada Caucuses on Feb. 18 and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 28.
It’s not surprising that those four early states would move in concert, but word of the potential alliance between South Carolina and Florida is notable given that just a few months ago South Carolina, under a previous state chair, joined with Iowa to pressure Florida to move back its proposed primary date.
As Josh Putnam, a visiting assistant professor at Davidson College who studies the primary system noted, the potential move by Florida and South Carolina is “further confirmation that Florida is making or has made an institutional jump into the pre-window group of states.”
If a deal can be struck, the net result of South Carolina and Florida moving in lock-step, Connelly hopes, will be to diminish Arizona’s influence and relegate it to no better than a number six position on the primary calendar. Florida Republicans are angling for their state to go fifth.
Under current Republican National Committee rules only four designated early states can hold their primaries before March 6, so both Arizona and Florida could face penalties if they were to move up. The RNC has threatened to strip rogue states of half their delegates at the national convention next summer if they do so.
Connelly said that the calendar process has been a “free for all” and that the wrangling has become a distraction from the GOP’s ultimate goal — defeating President Obama.
His other worry is that a compressed early primary schedule could make it easier for a candidate to essentially “buy the election” because only those with significant campaign war chests would be able to effectively compete on an abbreviated timeline.
It is a view shared by another powerful state GOP chairman, Matt Strawn of Iowa. Strawn said it would be “very dangerous for the party to, in any way, crowd the primary calendar.”
He said it could diminish the process, making it a “fundraising contest that could cause significant problems with grassroots Republicans.”
As for his state, which traditionally holds the nation’s first caucuses, Strawn said his approach was simple: “As goes New Hampshire, so goes Iowa.” Strawn traveled to the Granite State earlier this summer to meet with New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who sets the date of his state’s primary.
In South Carolina, Connelly does not need approval from the legislature or the governor to change the date of the primary. He has the authority to do so on his own.