TAMPA, Fla. — It has become known as the "Arizona situation" in the hallways of the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel.
As members of the Republican National Committee gather here for a summer meeting, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's desire to hold her state's GOP primary in late January – ahead of states that traditionally go first like Iowa and New Hampshire – has some party leaders worried that the change could upend the presidential primary calendar and add uncertainty to an already unsettled nomination fight.
"If people jump around, it's just going to cause chaos," South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said.
That's what the RNC had hoped to prevent when it passed rules last year intended to punish states that try to leapfrog four early voting states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – while giving incentives to those that scheduled theirs later, honoring the tradition of how the GOP chooses a challenger to President Barack Obama.
Despite the party's efforts, a slew of states – including Florida and Michigan – are considering scheduling their contests much earlier in 2012, though still after the four states, to try to reap economic benefits and political influence that come with the every-four-years spotlight. The RNC is quietly working to accommodate some of those states.
Arizona, however, presents a different challenge.
The southwestern state changed its law to say that it would hold its primary no later than Feb. 28. Brewer alone has the power to decide the precise date, and her spokesman confirmed that she is "leaning toward" a Jan. 31 primary – well before the four states plan to hold theirs.
"The big fly in the ointment right now is Arizona," said Phyllis Woods, the national committeewoman for New Hampshire.
Indeed, some Republicans here worry that Arizona's January date will prompt Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to hold their contests even earlier. Both Iowa, which typically holds the leadoff caucuses, and New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state, fiercely protect their status and have made clear they will be first – even if that means in late 2011.
Iowa GOP Chairman Matthew Strawn raised that possibility, saying: "I can speak for Iowans who don't want a knock on their door from a candidate on Christmas Eve as they're wrapping presents."
Other Republicans fear that a rush to the beginning of the 2012 calendar could hurt every state by creating a national primary of sorts in which several contests are lumped together in a relatively short time period, presumably allowing the candidate with the most money to run the table and dominate the contest without a complete vetting before taking on Obama in a general election.
Steve Scheffler, an RNC member from Iowa, said the rule changes last year were intended to stretch out the process "but if it all gets bunched together, we have to go first, then it becomes a domino effect."
There's a limit to what the RNC can do to control the situation, and the party's rules committee voted Thursday to reject a largely symbolic plan that could have imposed tougher sanctions – such as stripping convention VIP passes and desirable hotel locations – on states that skirt the rules.
"The reality is that each state is going to make their decision, their legislation or their leaders," said Sharon Day of Florida, an RNC co-chairwoman. She expressed relief that Arizona had become the problem child of the primary instead of Florida, saying: "Whatever the decision and the thought process was, for a fleeting moment as a Floridian, I kind of went, `Phew, maybe the pressure's off us.'
Already, states that violate the rules are supposed to lose half of their delegate slots to the party's national convention, which formally selects its presidential nominee. That penalty has been difficult to enforce; the presumptive nominee largely controls the rules and has been known to look past sanctions and seat full delegations.
"It's basically that candidate's convention," said Scheffler. "And sure, states may lose delegates, but if you've got states like Florida and Michigan, you're not going to let those seats be empty with the cameras on there. Realistically, what can you do to make them say, `Uncle?' It's pretty tough, really."
Connelly, the South Carolina chairman, sought to send Brewer a message Thursday, saying: "I think she would understand the rules, since she just enforced an immigration rule against the federal government. It would be consistent for her to enforce these rules as well."
Arizona Republicans, for their part, are shrugging off any threats.
Bruce Ash, an Arizona RNC member, is among those who supports Brewer's plan, which he says will force Republican presidential candidates to address issues important to Western voters, such as border security.
"This is of interest not just to Arizona. The governor she's a very, very gutsy governor," said Ash, the chairman of the RNC's rules committee. "And she really believes in representing our state and the interests of the West. This is her charge that she's taking, and I support her in it."
Arizona Republican Party Chairman, Thomas Morrissey, meanwhile, downplayed the disagreement, saying: "This is a family. We are having a family disagreement. We are going to work it out like families."