Did Florida just quash a possible Chris Christie campaign?

By holding its presidential primary on Jan. 31, Florida bumps the whole nominating calendar forward. That means anyone still contemplating a 2012 bid (maybe Chris Christie or Sarah Palin) has a lot less time to pull together a credible campaign.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has backed away from insisting he's not running for president. But early primaries mean he doesn't t have much time to pull a campaign together.

It’s official: Florida has set its presidential primary for Jan. 31, 2012. This means that the four states allowed by the Republican National Committee to hold their primaries and caucuses before March 6 are all but certain to schedule their primaries for January, too – or even earlier.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner of New Hampshire, the traditional first primary state, put out a statement Friday saying he could not rule out scheduling his state’s contest for December.

So now, anyone thinking of jumping into the Republican nomination sweepstakes suddenly has at least a month less to pull a campaign together to compete in the all-important earliest contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

Paging Chris Christie (and Sarah Palin). The governor of New Jersey has backed away ever so slightly from his “not a chance” assertions about running for president. And we still haven’t heard any final verdict from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who had said she would let us know by the end of September, though that turned into “end of September... ish.”

We still place long odds that either will run for president, but if one or both does, they’ll have just a matter of weeks to get ready for the first contest, the Iowa caucuses. Before Mr. Gardner of New Hampshire put out his statement, Iowa was expected to go early in January, as early as Jan. 2. New Hampshire would then go as early as Jan. 10, followed quickly by Nevada and South Carolina. At time of writing, the whole calendar was still up in the air.

Those first four states were originally scheduled to go in February, which would have given the candidates all of January to prepare and campaign. Truth be told, it’s been clear for some time that Florida was going to jump to January, and the campaigns have been behaving accordingly. But now that Florida has announced its new date, Governor Christie must decide if he can really put all the pieces in place for a credible run by the beginning of January.

A few other states have already jumped the gun by setting primaries or caucuses before March 6. Then on March 6 – Super Tuesday – Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Idaho, and Wyoming will hold their contests. The deadline for all states to report their plans to the Republican National Committee (RNC) is Oct. 1.

But it’s already clear from all the jockeying that the Republican Party won’t get what it wants: an orderly calendar that allows the RNC-anointed early states to go early, but not so early that the candidates are forced to spend the holidays in Iowa and New Hampshire. So New Year’s in Des Moines it is likely to be. By going against the rules, Florida is inviting punishment – the loss of half its voting power at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Some non-Floridians had suggested taking the convention away from Florida, too, but that idea was rejected out of hand. First, it’s too late to change the location of the convention. And given Florida’s importance as the largest swing state in the general election, the GOP can hardly risk alienating Florida voters. Florida jumped the line in 2008 and held its primary early, and lost half its voting power at the GOP convention in St. Paul.

This time, the nine-member committee that decided Friday – by a vote of 7 to 2 – to hold Florida’s primary on Jan. 31 has clearly decided it’s worth the punishment. By having an early primary, the state virtually guarantees the candidates will lavish attention on it with ads and campaign visits.

Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon told the Associated Press that the committee, which he helped appoint, did not want to break party rules, but the members did want to make sure that Florida went fifth. When Florida broke the rules and went early four years ago, “the sky didn’t fall,” Speaker Cannon said.

In fact, in 2008, Florida proved to be a crucial primary after the first four contests. Arizona Sen. John McCain’s victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney effectively sealed the nomination for Senator McCain. There’s no guarantee Florida will decide the nominee in 2012, but its primary will clearly be influential.

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