Even as the Republican presidential contenders zigzag through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, an uncertain and potentially unwieldy primary schedule in subsequent states is alarming party leaders, who fear that the voting could start earlier, last longer and complicate efforts to confront President Obama next year.
The 2012 presidential race is the first to fall under new rules from the Republican National Committee, which had intended the contests to start in February, a month later than in 2008. But at least a half dozen states are threatening to defy the rules and move up their primaries.
The result is that the first ballots are once again likely to be cast in January as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina move up the dates of their contests to protect their franchises as the early voting states.
At the same time, the rush toward the front of the calendar by Florida, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Missouri is accompanied by another trend: several states are pushing back their presidential primaries — or canceling them entirely — because of tight state budgets.
The outcome is a sharply scaled-back set of contests in the weeks after the initial flurry — with Super Tuesday in particular diminished in importance — followed by a stretch of primaries lasting until summer.
Josh Putnam, an assistant professor at Davidson College who studies presidential primaries and writes the blog FrontloadingHQ, said the biggest change to the calendar was the shrinking of Super Tuesday — from 24 states last time to about 10 next year — and the lengthening of the nominating season.
“Four years ago, there was a mad rush to the first Tuesday in February,” Mr. Putnam said. “This time, a sizable chunk of states are deciding to move back.”
Another dynamic in the calendar fight has made this round of behind-the-scenes competition among states even more chaotic.
Republicans have long operated under a winner-takes-all system, which has allowed the party to wrap up its nominating fight more swiftly than Democrats, who allow states to award delegates proportional to the share of votes received by the candidates. This time, most Republican delegates will be awarded proportionally for all primaries and caucuses taking place before April 1, which means finishing second can be nearly as fruitful as winning. If the campaign narrows to a head-to-head match between two candidates next year, it has the potential to become a Republican version of the extended 2008 Democratic delegate fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton that was not resolved until all states had voted.