With 2012 primary calendar in chaos, what does Iowa do now?

Florida set its presidential primary for Jan. 31, leapfrogging the designated early states. To restore order to the 2012 primary calendar, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada are weighing moves, too.

Chris Carlson/AP/File
Republican presidential candidates stand together before a debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., last month.

GOP candidates aren't going to be able to rest much over the December holidays.

Following Florida's widely criticized decision to move its Republican primary up to Jan. 31, the four designated early states are now following suit.

On Monday, South Carolina's GOP chairman announced that his state was moving its primary up a month, from Feb. 28 to Jan. 21, preserving its "first in the South" status. Now, all eyes are on New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada – the four "carve-out" states allowed by the national party to hold their contests before March 6 – to see just how early the nominating process will begin.

The whole scenario is complicated by various – and often contradictory – state laws and policies. New Hampshire's law, for instance, says its primary must be held on a Tuesday at least seven days before any similar contest. Nevada's Republican Party, on the other hand, says it must hold its caucuses four days after the New Hampshire primary, and on Monday, state party officials reiterated that they'll move their contest to the Saturday after whichever day New Hampshire picks.

Meanwhile, Iowa law says the state's caucuses must be held at least eight days before the next nominating contest. If New Hampshire settles on Jan. 10 for its primary, that pushes Iowa up to Jan. 2 – though more likely, officials would fudge the rules and hold it Jan. 3, since Jan. 2 is when the New Year's holiday will be observed in most workplaces. If New Hampshire opts for Jan. 3, that could push Iowa back to December.

All five states face repercussions for all their leapfrogging. For breaking the calendar set by the national party, they all risk losing half their delegates to the party's nominating convention next summer. That's a punishment Florida already experienced in 2008 – and apparently decided was worth it. But some of the smaller states are less than thrilled by the position they feel Florida has pushed them into.

"Last Friday, a nine-person committee brought chaos to the 2012 calendar,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said Monday. “Today, South Carolina is making things right."

And Nevada GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian fumed about the move, as well. "We’re not happy with them, period,” she told Politico last week. “We have what, 28 delegates? They have 99. So what do they care if they lose some? They didn’t have to be bullies about this." Still, by Monday Nevada had decided that its traditional position as the state following New Hampshire was more important than keeping all its delegates.

Increasingly, 2012's schedule is shaping up to look at lot like 2008's, when states also defied national party rules to hold early primaries (see: Michigan, Florida), and others correspondingly moved theirs up. Iowa's caucuses were held on Jan. 3, the earliest they've ever been, and New Hampshire's primary was on Jan. 8.

The early contests in 2008 were widely criticized by both parties, and this year, the schedule had Iowa holding its caucus on Feb. 6, with the other early states following. But all the efforts to keep the primary season to a reasonable start time seem doomed to failure as other states scramble to gain relevance and more attention from candidates.

The result: An even more compressed time frame for candidates trying to fundraise and campaign before the first contests, and a prolonged general election season. It makes things particularly difficult for those candidates with less national name recognition or who come to the race late.

With many pundits and GOP party activists still speculating about possible late entrants – particularly New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – the new schedule raises even more questions about how feasible such an entry even is. In the most likely scenario, the Iowa caucuses would now be just three months away, giving any new candidate a full month less of campaign time before the nominating season is in full swing – a daunting time frame by any measure.

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