Missouri is poised to hold an early presidential primary next year, a move that could inject more confusion into the 2012 election calendar by prompting other states to elbow to the front of the campaign line.
Lawmakers are moving closer to the end of a special legislative session without rescheduling the primary now set for Feb. 7, as national party officials would prefer. The February date would make Missouri's vote the second presidential contest in the nation, a day after Iowa's caucuses and before the New Hampshire primary.
Saturday is the deadline for states to schedule their 2012 primaries. The prospect of action by Missouri lawmakers before then appears slim.
The Democratic and Republican parties have pressed states not to crowd into the early weeks of 2012 and threatened to subtract half the national convention delegates of those doing so. Missouri was preparing to move its primary back but the effort has faltered.
"Sadly, a few senators may be willing to throw the entire national nominating process into disarray," said Missouri Republican Party Chairman David Cole, adding that presidential campaigns could boycott Missouri.
The executive director for the Missouri Republican Party said later Tuesday that it wants to avoid disrupting the national nominating process.
"We continue to explore all of our options, including those that do not require legislative action," said Lloyd Smith, the Missouri GOP executive director. "It is becoming obvious that we, as a party, will take necessary steps to select our delegates to the national convention in a way other than the primary."
If Missouri's February date holds, both Iowa and New Hampshire and potentially other states could move their presidential contests even earlier to maximize their role in the early campaign. Already, Arizona and Michigan have set presidential primaries for Feb. 28. And a Florida commission may decide Friday to set its primary earlier than March.
Tim Albrecht, spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, vowed that no state will get ahead of Iowa. "There is no doubt that Iowa will remain as the first contest. We will do whatever we can to keep Iowa first in the nation," he said.
The scramble could set up a repeat of the 2008 elections in which a rash of early contests led Iowa to hold its caucus on Jan. 3 amid the holiday season bustle. By early February, about half the states had voted. Five states were penalized delegates for holding contests too early.
States must weigh the penalty in lost delegates against the attention and spending that can go to contests held while the race is still wide open. This year, the attention is focused on the Republican field since President Barack Obama has no primary challenger in the Democratic Party.
RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said the rules for the 2012 primaries are "crystal clear" and there is no way to sidestep the punishment.
"If you don't meet the following criteria, your delegation is cut in half," Spicer said.
Missouri has held an early presidential primary since 2004 to increase the state's influence in the race. But, with the prospect of losing half the state's 53 Republican delegates this time, lawmakers agreed to move back the primary to March 6. However, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the legislation during the regular session over unrelated issues. Another rescheduling bill is now tied up in a special session that has stalled.
Missouri state Rep. Tony Dugger, a Republican, said the political price could be high for the state.
"If we're losing half of our delegates, I mean how much attention are the candidates going to pay attention to Missouri?" said Dugger, who sponsored the new legislation.
If Missouri's election date isn't changed, more leapfrogging is almost inevitable. Although the Iowa caucuses are currently scheduled for Feb. 6, a state law requires the state's caucus to be held at least eight days before the New Hampshire primary. And a New Hampshire law requires its primary to be held at least seven days before any other state's primary. So those states could move up their plans by weeks. South Carolina and Nevada also could shift forward their dates to stay near the front.
Associated Press writers Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa, and Tim Martin in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.