GOP Iowa Gov. Branstad Vows to Keep Caucuses First

February 28, 2011 - 6:19 PM

Des Moines, Iowa (AP) - Iowa officials pledged Monday to move up the state's 2012 presidential caucuses as early as needed to ensure the event remains the nation's first contest of White House hopefuls if Florida stands by plans for an early primary date.

National leaders have pledged to avoid a repeat of the 2008 competition that prompted Iowa to hold caucuses on Jan. 3 amid drawn-out disputes with Florida and Michigan. But a spokesman for Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and others said Iowa will move up its Feb. 6 caucuses if Florida sticks with a Jan. 31 primary.

"If Florida continues to stay where they are, we'll move up just as we have in the past," said Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht. "Iowa will move up and we will work with New Hampshire."

Iowa traditionally holds the first caucuses, followed days later by the New Hampshire primaries. Politicians elsewhere have argued for years that it's not fair for two states with relatively small populations and few minorities to go first, ensuring attention by presidential candidates and intensive media coverage.

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn said both major parties have adopted rules that set the primary calendar - with Iowa and New Hampshire starting off - in hopes of preventing the typical arguments and confusion over the nominating calendar.

"The states involved, the candidates, the operatives, the activists, everybody really wanted to insert some certainty into the process so we didn't have to fight right up to the holiday season like we did four years ago," Strawn said.

Florida Republican Party chairman David Bitner said the state's Legislature likes the earlier date, but he's worried about the penalties for violating the national rules that put Iowa first.

"The last time around we were penalized, but this time it gets even more severe," Bitner said. "We stand to lose half our delegates and our sponsors and even our hotel privileges in Tampa. Everybody is looking for a resolution to this."

Still, state Sen. John Thrasher, a former state party chairman from St. Augustine, said he doubts party officials will relent.

"I think Florida is probably going to stay with our January date," Thrasher said. "Florida is an incredibly large state with a diverse population and I think most believe it's a worthy state of having an early primary."

Florida Democrats have sought to move their primary to a later date in hopes of not repeating the 2008 fiasco. The parties punished the state that year for moving to an earlier date and forcing Iowa and New Hampshire to respond accordingly.

The Democratic National Committee took away Florida's delegates, then gave them only half-votes before finally giving them full votes at the party's nominating convention. The Florida Republican delegation was seated, but only half were allowed to vote at the convention.

Republican strategist Rich Galen said Iowa and New Hampshire will likely remain first because most candidates like it that way. Smaller population states enable candidates to build campaign organizations even if they aren't widely known nationally. A large state such Florida makes that nearly impossible for all but the best-financed candidates, he said.

Longtime Iowa Republican strategist Bob Haus said calendar fighting will continue until the parties get serious about sanctioning those who break the rules.

"Somebody needs to put their foot down and put a stop to this," Haus said. "This will continue to happen until someone puts their foot down and really lays down some retribution."

Former Iowa Republican Chairman Rich Schwarm said battling over the presidential calendar is all but inevitable, as other states seek the attention lavished on Iowa and New Hampshire, and to a lesser extent on the early states of South Carolina and Nevada.

"That is absolutely understandable," Schwarm said. "The other states do not think that Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have a God-given right to all this attention."