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Anthony Man / Florida Sun-Sentinel | March 22, 2007

Tallahassee – Hoping to muscle Florida into a pre-eminent role in picking next year's Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, the state House voted Wednesday to leapfrog almost all the other states and set a Jan. 29 primary, with an option to go even earlier.

The change, championed by House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and approved 115-1, is part of a national rush by states coveting the clout of Iowa and New Hampshire. Those states have enormous sway in choosing presidential candidates, even though they are small and, some say, unrepresentative of the nation's people and politics. The proposal must still pass the Senate.

"Florida is obviously going to be the big enchilada on the 29th. It will immediately become very, very important," said Nichol Rae, political science professor at Florida International University.

Florida's bid for increased influence is being tempered by the other vote-rich giants, California, New York and Texas. California already has moved its primary to Feb. 5, and the others are expected to do the same.

It has been more than three decades since Florida mattered much when it comes to picking presidential candidates.

Other states have moved up their primaries in recent years, and more and more attention has been going to earlier states. In the past few presidential races, the parties' nominees have been effectively decided before Florida primary voters had a chance to participate.

Presidential hopefuls aren't exactly strangers to the Sunshine State, but their main interest has been tapping big campaign contributors, rather than competing for the allegiance of everyday voters or political leaders such as South Florida's legendary condo commandos.

State Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, who sponsored the legislation, said candidates think of Florida as an ATM for campaign contributions.

If the date change becomes law, Floridians can expect an influx of candidates. Already, as talk of an earlier Florida primary intensified in recent months, presidential campaigns aggressively have sought to round up endorsements of Florida political leaders and operatives.

That's what many Florida politicos want. "Because we're one of the megastates, we think we should be playing a role," said Broward Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar.

Rubio believes Florida, with a population far more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire, can do a better job picking candidates for both parties than the current system.

Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report, contrasted Florida with South Carolina, which has been a major early state in recent years and also has its 2008 primary scheduled for Jan. 29. "[South Carolina] tests African-American sentiment for Democrats and conservative [and] Deep South white sentiment for Republicans. But it doesn't have the broader mix that Florida does."

Others warn of negative consequences, chiefly that early primaries in Florida and other large states will benefit the candidates who already are well known and have big campaign bank accounts at the expense of competitors with little cash. The Sunshine State, for example, is expensive because it's so large, which means candidates must buy advertising in many television markets.

"I think it's a bad idea. I think it turns the campaign into a straight money race," said state Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, the only House member who voted against the proposal.

National Democratic and Republican leaders don't like the acceleration of the entire presidential nominating cycle.

Sharon Day, the state Republican committeewoman from Broward County and Republican national committeewoman from Florida, said the timing would make it difficult to get people interested in the range of candidates, especially because early voting could start around New Year's Day.

"Our Christmas cards are going to be overwhelmed ... It's going to be nothing but campaign material," she said.

The legislation is on a much slower track in the Senate, where the Elections Committee has considered the issue but not acted.

Issues that are important to one legislative leader, in this case Rubio, are often delayed in the opposite chamber so they can be used as bargaining chips later in the legislative session.

Still, senators of both parties have indicated support for an earlier primary. State Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Parkland, the Senate sponsor of an earlier primary, said the state would benefit by forcing presidential candidates to cater to Florida interests on issues such as windstorm insurance the way they traditionally cozy up to Iowa farmers on ethanol.

"The only leverage that we're going to have with the presidential candidates is when they come to Florida and campaign here, and not just campaign for our money. They're going to have to campaign for what's important to Florida," Ring said.

That's why state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, voted for an earlier Florida primary.

"God bless everybody in Iowa, but I don't think they have the same issues that we have," he said. "Our concerns are different and we need to have them addressed."

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sun-sentinel.com or 850-224-6214.

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