Minnesota's GOP stars did more than Florida's

Published September 29, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - When the Republican National Convention site-selection committee arrived in Minneapolis-St. Paul in August, it spent the day with party heavyweights, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Norm Coleman.

A week later, when the selection committee arrived in Tampa-St. Petersburg, it got Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. Members also got dinner with Sen. Mel Martinez and a prerecorded welcome from Gov. Jeb Bush on their hotel phones.

Although Florida Republicans were supportive of Tampa's bid for the GOP convention, none of the state's high-wattage political stars stepped forward to lead the effort.

Would that have made a difference?

"Of course it does, this is literally Politics 101," said former Republican Party of Florida chairman Tom Slade. "You don't have but one or two chances to make a good first impression, and that impression is enhanced if your superstars are there and supportive."

Florida's Republican superstars - including Bush, Martinez, former Gov. Bob Martinez and Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist - all did their part to lobby the RNC. But mostly it was through behind-the-scenes phone calls.

No statewide elected Republicans joined the Tampa team when it made its presentation to the RNC in Washington, Tampa leader Al Austin confirmed Thursday.

By contrast, Minnesota's Coleman wasn't just a cheerleader, he was a champion of the cause. He made the city's presentation before the RNC.

Bush said he supported the bid for the convention, but he also was mindful of the political realities of Florida, the largest of the nation's "big swing states." He has said the party might be better off putting the enormous amount of money it takes to produce a national show toward winning elections.

"It's not a bottomless pit, let's just put it that way," Bush said on Thursday, after getting off a plane in Tallahassee. "For a Republican to win, you have to carry Florida, for a Democrat to win, probably the same applies. From a community perspective and a state perspective, these are very prestigious, Super Bowl-like-type events. From a political point of view, it's not necessarily helping carry Florida in a general election, which has to be the first priority."

Bush added that he doesn't think it has to be winning an election or winning a national convention bid. "I think you can do both," he said.

Republican members of Congress from Florida signed a letter touting Tampa, which was sent to RNC officials. The letter was circulated by Rep. Adam Putnam, the fifth-highest ranking Republican House member, who also made calls to the RNC, Austin said.

But it wasn't on the top of everyone's mind. Rep. Clay Shaw, a Republican from Fort Lauderdale who organizes meetings of the Florida delegation in Washington, did not even know Tampa had lost until he was told by a reporter on Thursday.

Times staff writers Anita Kumar and Janet Zink, and researchers Deirdre Morrow and Angie Holan contributed to this story.