By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida is expected to set its presidential primary election for January 31, setting off a game of leapfrog as various states try to increase their influence by moving ahead in the nominating process, state officials said on Wednesday.
The date will not become final until Florida's date selection committee meets in Tallahassee on Friday.
But the governor, the Florida Senate president and the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives -- who appointed the nine-member date selection committee -- have asked for the January 31 date, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon said.
"The three principals shared a goal of Florida being early in the process. Speaker Cannon felt that January 31 would preserve that," said Katie Betta, Cannon's spokeswoman.
That means the four states authorized by the Republican National Committee to go first would almost certainly move up their primary elections and caucuses.
In the process of choosing the presidential nominees fielded by the two major political parties, candidates compete in primary elections or other contests in the U.S. states to win delegates who ultimately will pick the nominees in later party conventions.
Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are authorized by the party to kick off the contests that will eventually produce a Republican nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election. Those states had planned on holding their contests in February.
Florida is a large and diverse state with nine major television markets, making it a very expensive place to campaign. If Florida succeeds in grabbing the fifth-place spot in the primaries, the candidates could be forced to spend a lot more money a lot earlier than they expected.
As it stands now, the Iowa caucuses are set for February 6, the New Hampshire primary for February 14, the Nevada caucuses for February 18 and the South Carolina primary for February 28.
But those dates will almost certainly move forward. In the last presidential election in 2008, New Hampshire moved its "first in the nation" primary to January 8 to stay ahead of states that jumped the line.
All states must notify the Republican National Committee on Saturday what dates they have chosen.
Florida could still set its election even earlier than January 31 if other states pick earlier dates before the Saturday deadline.
"The law does provide for flexibility if we need to make another decision," Betta said.
Already, Arizona has set its primary election for February 28, and Colorado and Missouri have indicated they want to move forward on the calendar as well.
(Editing by Will Dunham)