JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Republicans ducked a February state presidential primary and chose to hold caucuses more than a month later to avoid upsetting the national campaign schedule.
The shuffle means Missouri will dodge punishment from national Republicans, but the state still could get an early — if unofficial — say on the GOP presidential candidates.
State law still sets Missouri's presidential primary on Feb. 7. The Missouri Republican State Committee instead has chosen to award its delegates through a caucus process that starts March 17.
The Republican county caucuses in March will select delegates, who can signal allegiance to a presidential candidate but are not required to do so, to attend the state's congressional district conventions on April 21 and the state convention on June 2. At each of those meetings, roughly half of Missouri's delegates to the Republican National Convention will be selected and then bound to support a particular presidential candidate.
However, Missouri law currently still requires a presidential primary on Feb. 7 — even if Republicans are using caucuses and the Democratic candidate will be President Barack Obama. Coming a month before Missouri's caucuses, even a nonbinding presidential preference election would allow Missouri to leave a mark on a possible favored candidate relatively early in the contest. Depending somewhat on what happens during the early state caucuses and primaries, a win in a Missouri "beauty contest" could help a candidate demonstrate viability, earn attention and shore up fundraising.
"Missouri is thought of as a swing state and a barometer state. You'd hate to lose, especially badly, but you can gain some traction if you win," said Richard Fulton, a political science professor at Northwest Missouri State University.
The national Republican and Democratic parties have pushed states to wait longer to hold their presidential contests next year and have threatened to dock half the delegates to the national convention for a state that goes too early. The national party rules allow Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to hold their primaries or caucuses in February. The rest are supposed to wait until at least March.
Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith said the state should get attention from presidential hopefuls. He said a tightly contested and longer duration race such as the 2008 contest could boost the attention that Missouri gets with the state's mid-March caucuses occurring when candidates need delegates. However, Missouri also might get less attention at the start of the campaign with a nonbinding primary.
"Our consideration was where do we get the most bang for our buck, and we decided let's do this where we keep our maximum delegate strength," Smith said.
Smith said he expected to see Missouri start to signal its presidential preferences at the March caucuses and for that to begin gelling at the April congressional district conventions.
States were facing a deadline this weekend to submit the dates for their state presidential primaries and caucuses to the national Republican Party. In the week ahead of that, there was uncertainty about when those contests would be held, as several states jostled for positioning to pick up the attention and campaign spending that can come with early contests.
Missouri's primary on Feb. 7 could have been the day after Iowa's caucuses and threatened to cause confusion. Now, even the nonbinding Missouri primary cannot be second in line because Florida decided Friday to jump the gun and has set its primary for Jan. 31.
Like other statewide election campaigns, presidential primaries in Missouri could be waged heavily through TV ads and enticing residents to spend several minutes casting a ballot at the polls. A caucus means attracting supporters and persuading them to attend what can be a lengthy meeting. In addition, a primary could allow Democrats who do not have their own presidential contest to weigh in on the Republican candidates. Caucuses can attract more ardent GOP supporters, which could fuel support for more conservative presidential candidates.
"The candidate who is better organized on the ground is more likely to do well in a caucus situation," said George Connor, the head of the political science department at Missouri State University.
How the possibility of a state presidential primary the month before will affect the caucuses is unclear. A decisive win on Feb. 7, could fuel support among caucus-goers armed with the knowledge of the preference of primary voters. At the same time, a Missouri Republican who is sufficiently interested in the presidential campaign to attend a caucus could have strong feelings about which GOP candidate is best suited to be president and possibly be willing to ignore the more than month-old result of what amounts to a state-funded public opinion poll.
No matter how Missouri chooses sides in the presidential contest, it is likely to have some impact because the state offers a decent small-scale sample of the nation with large cities, suburbs and rural areas. Missouri also can offer a psychological boost as a general election battleground state that has voted for the eventual presidential winner in all but two elections over the past century.
"To pick up the real rural and suburban St. Louis and suburban Kansas City, a Republican who can do well can take that show on the road," Connor said.
Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.