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Tim Pawlenty Already Having Trouble Navigating Convoluted Primary-Map Politics

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WASHINGTON -- The delicate balance of the 2012 Republican presidential primary calendar is already creating political difficulties for at least one presumptive candidate.

In the past two weeks, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his staff have given two seemingly diametrically-opposed answers when asked which state's primary voters should get to cast their ballots first.

Speaking in Florida, Pawlenty declined to discuss that state's decision to schedule its primary on Jan. 31, a violation of Republican National Committee rules that allow only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina voters to weigh in before March 1.

"I don't purport to give other states advice on how they run their elections or their primaries. That's up to them," Pawlenty said.

But Florida isn't alone in trying to upend the traditional primary schedule. Pawlenty's home state has passed a law establishing its primary date as Feb. 7 -- one day after the caucuses in Iowa. It can only change that law with the consent of both political parties, and Pawlenty's fellow Minnesota Republicans have refused to budge.

On Monday, the former governor's top spokesman, Alex Conant, was asked by a New Hampshire television station whether Pawlenty would talk to the GOP leadership in his home state about moving the date back. Conant's answer sounded much different from the one Pawlenty gave in Florida.

"The governor strongly believes that the first four states scheduled should remain to be the first four," Conant said. "New Hampshire should have the first primary. What we are talking about right now is a nonbinding straw. We have expressed to the organizers of this event that it should take place after the New Hampshire primary."

Pawlenty, of course, has the luxury of being tougher on Minnesota than on Florida, since he ought to be tough to beat in his home state. But Conant's answer still underscores just how privileged New Hampshire voters remain, with the first primary following the Iowa caucuses that typically kick off the election season.

The decision by Florida and Minnesota to move up their primary dates clearly has the potential to cause the same types of problems for Republicans in 2012 as Florida and Michigan's earlier votes did for Democrats in 2008, when candidates were forced to show deference to New Hampshire and Iowa voters while trying not to appear too dismissive of voters in other states. The resolution could potentially be the same as well, with most candidates agreeing not to compete in those states that violate national party rules.