JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri Republicans decided Thursday to use caucuses to choose presidential candidates, bailing out of a planned February primary that had threatened to cause confusion for the 2012 election calendar.
The Missouri Republican State Committee voted unanimously to switch to a caucus process in an attempt to avoid losing half its 52 delegates to the national convention and triggering a chain-reaction of states moving up their presidential contests. The March 17 county caucuses will be open to any Republican who is registered to vote in that county.
The national Republican and Democratic parties have pressed states not to crowd into the early weeks of 2012 to hold their presidential primaries and have threatened to deduct half the national convention delegates for those that do. The national party rules allow Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to hold contests in February and require that other states wait until at least March.
However, a Missouri law sets its primary date as Feb. 7 -- which would have been the second presidential contest in nation and a day after Iowa's caucus.
At the county caucuses, Republicans will select delegates to attend the state's congressional district conventions on April 21 and a state convention June 2. At those conventions, delegates will be selected to attend the party's national convention. Those delegates will be bound to support a particular presidential candidate. The state Republican Party chairman, national committeeman and national committeewoman also are delegates to the national convention.
Earlier this year, Missouri lawmakers agreed to move next year's primary back to March 6, but Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the legislation because of unrelated issues in the elections measure. Lawmakers convened in an autumn special legislative session have stalled over state economic development issues and failed to push back the presidential primary before the Saturday deadline to inform national Republicans of primary or caucus dates.
"The Missouri Republican Party is committed to ensuring that the governor's veto of the elections bill and the General Assembly's failure to move our presidential primary will not disrupt the national nominating process," state GOP Chairman David Cole said. "A caucus will continue to protect the rights of Missourians to select the Republican nominee for president."
Despite Thursday's decision by Republicans, Missouri law still calls for a presidential primary election scheduled for Feb. 7 -- the outcome just won't be used to award the Republican delegates. That means Missouri taxpayers could essentially pay for a huge public opinion poll.
House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey said he hoped state officials could cancel the primary.
"That seems like a silly waste of money to go ahead and hold the primary if in fact that is not going to be what binds the delegates," said Silvey, R-Kansas City.
The secretary of state's office said Missouri's 2008 presidential primaries -- which had competitive contests among both Republicans and Democrats -- cost about $7 million and that more than 1.4 million votes were cast. In 2004, only Democrats held a competitive election because Republican President George W. Bush was running for re-election. That presidential primary cost about $4 million with roughly 543,000 people voting.
Missouri has held presidential caucuses in the past. A 1998 state law created a presidential primary when Democratic Congressman Dick Gephardt, of St. Louis, and Republican U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft were considering possible presidential runs in 2000. Later on, a 2002 state law moved Missouri's primary date ahead to February.
The possibility of an early presidential primary in Missouri had threatened to cause ripples throughout the country.
Florida could set its primary date on Jan. 31, as part of an effort to be the fifth state to vote for presidential candidates, according to the Florida House speaker. A state commission responsible for setting Florida's presidential primary was expected to choose Friday.
Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina have said they could move their contests earlier if necessary to stay ahead of other states.
"Any states breaking the rules hurts them and hurts us as well," South Carolina GOP Executive Director Matt Moore said. "We're going to take a hard stand with the other three states in restoring order to the calendar."
Associated Press writer Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.