tampabay.com

Romney heeds call of Florida

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published February 6, 2007


If early buzz and insider enthusiasm decided elections, Republican Mitt Romney would be well on the way to winning Florida's presidential primary next year.

No presidential contender from either party has responded more vigorously to the likelihood that Florida will be among the earliest presidential primary contests and could play a decisive role in choosing the presidential nominees.

For a little-known underdog up against household names like Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, the former Massachusetts governor has done a remarkable job winning over Republican opinion leaders, tapping heavily into Jeb Bush's political network.

"By far and away, Romney is the most organized candidate on the ground in Florida, and the two frontrunners, Giuliani and McCain, would be wise to pay attention and address that accordingly. Otherwise, they're going to be surprised in the primary," said Brett Doster, a top Republican strategist who is officially neutral in the race but widely seen as a Romney ally.

The Florida presidential campaign is revving up earlier than ever before, though former New York Mayor Giuliani has been nearly invisible in the state so far.

"We've got a lot of good support down there," Arizona Sen. McCain told the St. Petersburg Times. "We expect that it will increase over time. I'm very happy with where we are."

In the face of Romney's growing Sunshine State strength, McCain in recent days has rolled out some high-profile support.

On Monday McCain's exploratory committee announced three key fundraisers for Gov. Charlie Crist - lobbyists Brian Ballard and Marty Fiorentino and Miami lawyer Manny Kadre - will lead McCain's money-raising efforts.

Last week the campaign announced endorsements by three Cuban-American U.S. House members from Miami - Lincoln Daz-Balart, Mario Daz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Also advising McCain in Florida are former Gov. Bush senior aides Kathleen Shanahan and Hayden Dempsey, and former state Board of Education Chairman Phil Handy.

"The two main contenders in Florida now are John McCain and Mitt Romney," said Fort Lauderdale cardiologist Zach Zachariah, one of the nation's top Republican fundraisers. "I haven't made up my mind, but Mitt Romney is a very attractive candidate, and he's getting a lot of support in Florida."

Romney, of course, needs more early organization than his better known rivals, so he has been methodically meeting with Republicans across Florida. Fans cite his personal warmth, his fresh face from outside the Beltway and his track record in business and turning around the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics.

Among the early Romney supporters in Florida: former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, former state House speakers Allan Bense and John Thrasher, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and state Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, who is among the most prominent social conservatives in the Legislature. Floridians leading his fundraising include former Ambassador Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg and developer Mark Guzzetta of Fort Lauderdale.

"Al Cardenas (the former state GOP chairman) and I are movement conservatives, and we've made our choice for Mitt Romney," U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney told a state GOP gathering last month.

In one sense, the Florida Republican primary is shaping up as a contest between Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. Both are officially neutral, but many of Bush's closest allies are jumping behind Romney and Crist's behind McCain.

Former Gov. Bush's top political advisers, strategist Sally Bradshaw and Ann Herberger, are working for Romney, who already has a dozen paid staffers organizing in Florida. Senior McCain adviser John Weaver predicted Florida support in the presidential primary would be similar to last year's gubernatorial primary, where Crist trounced Tom Gallagher by more than 30 percentage points.

"The people who supported Gallagher are going to Romney, those who supported Charlie will be coming out soon for John," Weaver said.

Early presidential fundraising is nothing new in Florida, which is loaded with deep-pocketed donors. But Florida is angling this cycle to play a much bigger role in the nominating process by moving up its primary election so that it falls a week after New Hampshire's in January 2008.

What's more, Republican leaders are planning what could be a nationally watched nonbinding straw poll, called "Presidency IV," for GOP activists in October to vote for their preferred candidates. Crist, however, has not yet okayed that idea, which the McCain camp opposes.

"I think an early primary is more important, but if we did both it would be even better. In combination with an early primary, Presidency IV probably would make us the center of the political universe," said Republican state House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is leading the push for an early primary.

Other big states, including California and New Jersey, are looking at early primaries too, but Florida would be positioned to be the first major battleground state in the primary season.

"The idea that Florida will be the one and only arbiter may be a little overblown because all these big states are jockeying. But what is clear is that a candidate who plays well in Florida, plays well across the country, and Rudy's starting in very good shape," said Adam Goodman, a Tampa media consultant close to Giuliani.