The fight for the GOP presidential nomination looks increasingly like it could be decided by a state with a rule-breaking, unsanctioned election that has thrown the presidential primary calendar in flux.

Just like in 2008.

That’s partly a statement on the 2012 GOP field: Each Republican contender has strong incentives to play hard in Florida’s out-of-order primary to compensate for their weakness in one or more of the traditional early states.

More importantly, in a wide-open primary field it’s not clear that any candidate can afford to skip even an unauthorized contest in the nation’s largest swing state.

As a result, Florida’s months-long staring contest with the Republican National Committee over the primary date is a moot point: GOP White House hopefuls are already preparing to contest Florida like a bona fide early presidential state.

“I think they’re definitely all in,” said Florida state Senate President Mike Haridopolos. “Those people I’ve talked to on the phone have said, ‘We’re playing in Florida regardless of when your primary is.’”

It could take until next fall to resolve exactly when Florida’s primary will take place next year. The vote is currently scheduled for Jan. 31, but state lawmakers are considering several other dates in February and March that would allow Florida to go fifth in the primary lineup. If the state insisted on voting before the first Tuesday in March, it would face a delegate penalty at the convention in Tampa.

Florida’s primary was out of order in 2008, too. But when it came time to impose penalties at the Republican national convention, the credentialing committee balked at punishing delegates from an essential general-election state.

While there’s plenty of uncertainty around the exact timing of the Florida primary, there’s already an early trial heat scheduled: Florida Republicans will hold a straw poll at the “Presidency 5” conference in late September. Candidates who want an early bounce in the state are expected to compete for support from over 3,000 pre-chosen delegates his summer.

“Everybody thinks Florida costs so much, the television’s so expensive – and it is – but for this first phase, it’s retail,” said GOP ad man David Johnson, who recalled Florida’s last straw poll in 1995 as a major media event.

“The only cable network in ’95 was CNN. There was no Fox News. This will be non-stop coverage,” he predicted. “The campaigns that come down here and work this and really invest time and resources into organizing their retail, it will help them immensely.”

So far, no candidate has called Florida’s primary an illegitimate contest, or vowed to skip it in deference to traditional early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

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