COLUMBIA — Florida is threatening to usurp South Carolina's coveted first-in-the-South presidential primary, a move that could diminish the Palmetto State's influence in the GOP presidential nominating process.

S.C. Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly pledges that the state will remain first in the South. The only question is when. Connelly announced today that he would reveal the state's GOP primary date at 11 a.m. Thursday. His announcement follows Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon's comment to CNN that the Sunshine State intends to move its primary to Jan. 31, possibly upending the nominating process.

At stake is South Carolina's influence in selecting the GOP nominee — as well as all the cash the parade of candidates brings to South Carolina and the national exposure that could translate into tourism dollars and economic development. The state has correctly selected the party's nominee for president in every contest since 1980.

Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said the states must provide their primary dates to the RNC by Saturday. Any state that violates the calendar rules risks losing half of their delegates at the party's convention next year in Tampa, Fla. The convention is where delegates from the state officially select the party's presidential candidate.

Under RNC rules, no states other than South Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada can hold a primary earlier than March 6, without risking the loss of delegates. The primaries historically stretch from late January through the summer. The general election against President Barack Obama will be in November 2012.

Brian Hughes, communication director for the Florida Republican Party, told The Post and Courier that a committee, appointed by Florida's governor, House speaker and Senate president, is expected to meet Friday to decide on a primary date.

Given Florida's prominence in Republican politics, its size and the key role it plays in electing a president, Hughes said the state party leaders believe Florida deserves an early primary date and one it has all to itself.

To hold a primary in Florida at a later date, when the party's nominee is a foregone conclusion, doesn't make sense, Hughes said. Florida is a key testing ground for a White House candidate, he said.

Still, Hughes said Florida Republicans respect South Carolina's role and admire the state's chairman.

"We wouldn't have any qualms with South Carolina remaining first in the South" even ahead of Florida, he said.

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Connelly defended South Carolina's position. He said South Carolina is the best and final test of a candidate's strength before the campaign's home stretch. If a candidate can't win in South Carolina, he or she cannot win nationally, Connelly said.

"South Carolina's diverse, informed Republicans are a bellwether for campaigns both large and small, given our state's size and cost of campaigning," Connelly said.

"The world's eyes will watch our state and, in addition to generating millions in positive economic impact, the primary shines a positive light on South Carolina. We receive millions of dollars in free advertising. I'm proud that national and international viewers get to see our beautiful beaches, Upstate, and everything in between."

Check back for updates on Read the full story in Thursday's editions of The Post and Courier.