By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida defied national Republican Party leaders on Friday and set its U.S. presidential primary election for January 31, a move likely to push forward the 2012 election schedule as other states jockey to keep their influence.
Florida, the largest of the presidential swing states, moved up its election in order to boost its clout in the process that will produce a Republican nominee to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election.
The four states authorized by the Republican National Committee to go first in the nominating process -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- were expected to respond by moving their nominating contests forward to January, or even earlier, to keep their favored spots.
Earlier primaries would likely favor former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as he has been in the race for months and has already built up campaign finance warchests and a national network of activists.
An early start would also make it more difficult for potential candidates like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to join the Republican race now.
"We cannot rule out the possibility of conducting the primary before the end of this year," New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner's office said.
Party leaders in the early voting states were furious at Republican leaders in Florida, whose move will likely force candidates to campaign during the winter holidays.
"The arrogance shown by Florida's elected leadership is disappointing, but not surprising," said Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn, who called Florida "petulant."
"Rogue states have once again dictated the presidential nominating calendar," said South Carolina Republican Chairman Chad Connelly.
The two major U.S. political parties choose their nominees by having candidates compete at the state level in staggered elections and caucuses to win delegates who ultimately will pick the winner at party conventions.
Under the Republican National Committee rules, Florida will be punished with the automatic loss of half of its delegates to the party's nominating convention, which will be held in Tampa, Florida, in August 2012, senior party officials said.
'TIME FOR FLORIDA TO BE A PLAYER'
Members of Florida's date selection committee said the added influence from an early primary would offset the loss of delegates to the convention, which they said had become "coronations" for outcomes that have already been decided.
"We're the biggest swing state in the union," said former Florida Governor Bob Martinez, a Republican on the date selection panel. "So, I think this is a real, real election in Florida."
In the past, candidates who did poorly in early-voting states have dropped out before Florida got its turn to cast ballots. "It's time for Florida to be a player," said Al Lawson, a former state senator and a Democratic member of the date committee.
He voted with the 7-2 majority on the Republican-dominated committee to move the date forward, saying Florida's racial, political and ethnic diversity make it a critical bellwether of national politics.
Incumbent Obama does not face a challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, so the loss of Florida delegates to that party's convention would not affect his candidacy.
Voting had been scheduled to start with the Iowa caucuses on February 6, the New Hampshire primary on February 14, the Nevada caucuses on February 18 and the South Carolina primary on February 28. Those states were expected to move their elections and caucuses forward in tandem to maintain that voting order.
But if they vote before February 1, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina would also lose half their convention delegates -- diluting their clout. Iowa would not because its caucus is non-binding.
The labyrinthine rules are aimed at stretching out the voting, and take into account when the delegates become bound to a particular candidate and whether the states award delegates proportionally or winner-take-all.
Although states must submit their election plans to the Republican National Committee by midnight Saturday night, the rules are so complicated that it will take about a week to compile a definitive calendar, senior Republicans said.
(Additional reporting by Ros Krasny in Boston, Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Andrew Stern in Chicago and John Whitesides in Washington; Writing by Jane Sutton; Editing by Todd Eastham)