Florida to hold primary Jan. 31, S.C. to step in front

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly

Renee Ittner-McManus

COLUMBIA — South Carolina Republicans are expected to vote on a presidential candidate sometime in January, following a move by Florida today to set the Sunshine State's primary on Jan. 31.

South Carolina's GOP Chairman Chad Connelly has pledged to step in front of Florida so the Palmetto State can retain its coveted first-in-the-South primary, which brings millions of dollars in free advertising to the state through national media exposure. But Connelly said he will not announce a date today, as expected.

The primary process — designed for South Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada to hold the first four contests between Feb. 1 and March 6 — is intended to allow candidates to compete with one another. A condensed primary schedule would favor the wealthy candidates as the hopefuls would face off in only the largest and most expensive media markets.

The other three early states are also expected to bump up their contests.

"Today's decision by Florida is hugely disappointing and could have been avoided," Connelly said in a statement. "Rogue states have once again dictated the presidential nominating calendar. I call on my fellow RNC members and all Republicans to strongly condemn Florida's decision."

Connelly said he wants Florida to lose all of its delegates. His comments signal that Connelly might try to strong arm Florida into backing off the Jan. 31 date, but it is not clear if that would happen.

"Rules matter," he said.

South Carolina will also face penalties if its primary is held before Feb. 1. But Connelly said Thursday he is willing to take that risk to protect South Carolina's influential primary, which has correctly picked the GOP candidate for president every year since 1980.

Because Florida violated the calendar rules and set a date ahead of March 6, the state will lose half of its delegates in the party's convention where a GOP presidential candidate will formally be nominated.

The commission in charge of selecting the date voted 7-2 in favor of the Jan. 31 contest.

The nine-member commission, appointed by the Florida House speaker, Senate president and governor, also considered Jan. 3 and March 6, but voted both down those dates.

Florida's House Majority Leader Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Republican, said an earlier primary date will lead to a significantly higher voter turnout. The loss of delegates at a convention where their vote is a formality is not significant compared to the ability to engage 11 million voters in Florida, Lopez-Cantera argued along with the commission's other Jan. 31 supporters.

Florida Sen. John Thrasher, also a Republican, said the 2012 election is arguably the most important presidential primary in history.

Delegates decisions have not influenced the eventual nominee for either party in at least 50 years, according to Florida officials.

Read more in Saturday's editions of The Post and Courier.