WASHINGTON — For front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, Florida looked to be a major battleground in the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. With its big, sprawling population, the state was a natural for high-profile candidates who could afford costly campaigns, and the prize was a whopping 210 delegates.

But now, because of an unexpected glitch, those delegates could go to a candidate most Americans don't even know is running: a crusty former senator from Alaska named Mike Gravel. Or maybe to Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, the quixotic peace candidate who barely registers in the polls.

It sounds like just another wacky political dust-up from the land of hanging chads and butterfly ballots. But the problem is considered so serious that Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and state party officials are embroiled in frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations to stave off a potential disaster that could quickly spread across the nation.

The trouble sprang from a decision by Florida lawmakers to jump to an earlier spot on the primary election calendar, following the lead of other big states tired of voting too late to have a meaningful say in choosing each party's nominee.

But whereas California, Illinois and many other states are moving to set their primaries for Feb. 5, Florida opted to leap ahead to Jan. 29 — a week earlier than allowed under Democratic Party rules. And that has triggered mayhem.

National Democratic officials have vowed to enforce party rules that strip delegates from any state that moves too early in the calendar, and also from candidates who campaign in those states. The penalties were meant to stop states from continually leapfrogging each other in a race to be among the first to vote.

As things stand now, Clinton, Obama and other prominent contenders may not be eligible to win any Florida delegates, though the state offers a compartively large share of the total needed to win the Democratic nomination. Under one scenario, it could turn out that no Democratic candidate gets any Florida delegates.

Democratic officials are alarmed by these possibilities, though they are reluctant to talk about the problem for fear of jeopardizing the negotiations.

For starters, they don't want to undercut their own candidates in what many consider the biggest swing state for the general election. And if the Florida crisis is not resolved quickly, it could prompt other states to change their voting dates again — with some ballots possibly cast as early as 2007. New Hampshire, which plans to vote Jan. 22, has said it will do whatever is necessary to protect its status as the first presidential primary state.

All agree they need to find a solution.

"The alternative is chaos," said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and fundraiser for former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a top-tier Democratic candidate. "I'm encouraging everybody to calm down, take a deep breath and figure this out," said Berger, who is privy to the negotiations

It was not supposed to be this way. To prevent this very problem — and to protect the practice of retail politicking in the traditional early-voting states — Dean and other party leaders established a nationwide schedule for primaries and caucuses, starting in January 2008. They designated Iowa as the first caucus state, along with newcomer Nevada. New Hampshire and South Carolina were approved for primaries soon afterward.

The DNC, trying to keep the selection process from being too front-loaded and thus stacked against candidates with smaller war chests, also adopted a rule saying no other state could hold a primary before Feb. 5.

But Republicans in the Florida Legislature — supported by many Democrats — pushed through a measure setting Jan. 29 as the date for their state's presidential primary. Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill.

If that date holds for picking Florida's Democratic delegates, penalties for violating the party's rules would cut Florida's delegation by more than half, to 92 votes. But most important, the rules would also take away any delegates won by candidates who campaigned or raised funds in the state.

Tension over the 2008 calendar is especially high because, for the first time in half a century, there are competitive primaries in both parties. The GOP, which also has rules designed to keep order in the nominating process, plans to strip Florida of about half its delegates to the national convention if the early primary is held. But the DNC rules go much further.

Strategists for Clinton vow that the senator from New York will campaign in Florida no matter what, underscoring her intent to build a campaign for the general election. Other well-known contenders such as Sen. Obama of Illinois, Edwards, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson are not likely to forgo the fundraising riches of Florida, one of the country's biggest sources of campaign cash.

That means that Florida's delegates could fall to the also-rans who appear on the state ballot but face no pressure to campaign there.

Or, it could mean no candidate gets any Florida delegates. The Democratic rules also contain a provision that no candidate who receives less than 15% of the total primary vote may be awarded delegates, though party officials admit the rule is vague and it's not clear what would happen if the top vote-getters were disqualified.