South Carolina Republicans will keep their traditional role as being the first southern voters to choose their party's presidential nominee.

The 168-member Republican National Committee agreed Friday to set South Carolina's primary for February 2016, the state GOP announced. The decision was part of a larger vote designed to condense the primary process and hold the party's convention by July -more than a month earlier than last time.

"Today's vote is a huge win for South Carolina and the country," state GOP chair Matt Moore said. "South Carolina is important because it's the first true test of the broader Republican party. It's a test very similar to the general election test."

Under the party's new rules, only South Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada will hold contests in February 2016.

If any state were to jump ahead of these four - as Florida attempted to do in 2012 - they would be penalized. States with 30 or more delegates would be cut down to 12 delegates total, while states with fewer than that would be cut to nine or cut by one-third, whichever is smaller.

The state's early role in presidential primaries, created largely by former Gov. Carroll Campbell, has helped South Carolina Republicans achieve the dominance they currently enjoy: The party has all nine statewide elected offices, both U.S. Senators, six of seven congressmen and comfortable majorities in the Legislature.

Also, the primaries attract big bucks. Moore said the economic impact from the early presidential primary includes $15 million in television ads and a similar amount from indirect impacts. Republican candidates held three nationally televised primary debates in the state before the 2012 primary.

Moore said South Carolina also makes for a good early primary state because it's small enough to get around but also has a diverse mix of fiscal, social, and defense or national security conservatives.

National Committeeman Glenn McCall, who lives in Rock Hill, helped draft the new plan.

"This important reform strikes a great balance between a constructive nominating process and giving our nominee more time to compete in the general election," he said.

As part of the plan, the party's nominating convention will be held in late June or July, giving the candidate more time to raise money ahead of the November 2016 election.

Moore thanked McCall, former state GOP chair Chad Connelly and National Committeewoman Cindy Costa of Charleston for their role in Friday's vote.

Costa said early states like South Carolina "are a springboard to help underfunded and upstart candidates gain momentum and potentially compete across the whole country."

She said it was an American ideal to allow any candidate with great ideas - but not necessarily a big war chest at the beginning - to compete for the presidency. "It was important for us to protect that ideal," she said.

It's unclear how the Republicans' move might affect the timing of the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina, but Moore said lawyers for both parties have been communicating about the primary calendar on a national level.

For almost two decades, the winner of the South Carolina GOP primary went on to capture the nomination - a streak broken in 2012, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won here but eventually lost the nomination to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.