From the day Florida announced it would flout Republican National Committee rules by holding a winner-take-all primary prior to the permitted April 1 start date, it was predictable that a loser of that contest was certain to complain.
Now, Newt Gingrich's campaign has announced he will complain.
Spokesman R.C. Hammond told reporters Thursday that the campaign is sending a letter to the Florida Republican Party asking it to comply with the RNC rules that require contests held prior to April 1 to allocate delegates proportionally.
If Florida were to allocate delegates on a strictly proportional basis, Gingrich would be leading the delegate race right now.
Gingrich lost the Florida GOP vote Tuesday to Mitt Romney by 14 percentage points, 46 to 32. Under the winner-take-all scheme adopted by the state party, Romney would get all 50 delegates, and Gingrich would get nothing. Under a strictly proportional allocation formula, though, Romney would get only 23 delegates, while Gingrich would get 16.
Add those to the delegates awarded in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and Gingrich would be leading Romney 39 to 32, rather than losing to him 59 to 23.
"The existing rules say that any contest held before a certain date is awarded delegates proportionally," Hammond said. "They held their contest before that certain date. So we're asking them to enforce those rules."
The Florida Republican party wasted little time making clear what it thought of Gingrich's proposal, pre-empting the official request with a denial issued via press release. "All campaigns and the RNC have known since [September] that Florida was winner take all," said Florida party Chairman Lenny Curry. "It is a shame when the loser of a contest agrees to the rules before, then cries foul after losing."
Even if Florida rejects Gingrich's plea, though, he has the option of pursuing the matter with the RNC's Contest Committee at the nominating convention in Tampa this summer. There, as RNC Rules Committee member John Ryder told NPR as early as November, a challenge could well succeed, given the clarity of the rules that were adopted in August 2010 — with the approval of Florida's committee members.
Such a challenge would make no difference if the front-runner, presumably Romney, has won enough delegates to make Florida's 50 irrelevant in the calculus to reach the 1,144 needed for nomination. But if the race is close, the math could matter a great deal.
Prior to Florida's primary, Romney picked up seven delegates by winning New Hampshire and two delegates by coming in second in South Carolina. Gingrich won 23 by winning South Carolina.
Iowa's caucuses on Jan. 3 did not award delegates officially, although the results will influence delegate selection at the state party convention. An additional 28 delegates will be awarded in Nevada's caucuses this weekend.
S.V. Dáte is the NPR Washington Desk's congressional editor.