TAMPA – These are heady days for members of Hillsborough County's Republican Party.
The Republican National Convention is coming to Tampa in August. Both Democrats and Republicans note that Hillsborough could swing the national election.
On Saturday night, 450 GOP loyalists celebrated their role in deciding history during the party's annual Lincoln Day Dinner.
"Every one of us should relish the spotlight, where Tampa will be the center of the political universe," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. "This is so exciting."
Yet the next few months will be tricky for the party as well. Reports that the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, is dodging Gov. Rick Scott on the campaign trail continue to linger, awkwardly.
Before speaking Saturday night at the A La Carte Event Pavilion in South Tampa, Scott denied reports that Romney's campaign has told him to change his message that the Florida economy is doing fine.
"There's no truth to that," he said. "I'm glad everybody understands how well we're doing. That's the good news."
A Scott spokesman later told a reporter that Scott and Romney have yet to appear together in Florida only because they've been unable to coordinate their schedules, and that there was no other reason.
During his 15-minute speech, Scott continued to make a case that seems to counter Romney's argument that Florida's economy is in dire shape. Munching on pan-seared sirloin and tilapia with spiced couscous and vegetables with pecan brown butter, the crowd listened as Scott said that unemployment is down, it's easier to get permits, and less regulation had produced a robust business environment.
"Our economy is coming back," Scott told the crowd.
Scott talked more about Attorney General Pam Bondi and the work she has done fighting President Barack Obama's national health care plan than he did Romney.
"Hopefully the right thing will happen with Obamacare next week, and it will be determined to be unconstitutional," Scott said. "Pam Bondi is on the right side of the issue. If we do win, it's because of her efforts."
When Putnam spoke, he scoffed at the notion that Romney may have told Scott to stop trumpeting the state economy.
"It's a pseudo story," he said.
Sure the economy might be improving, Putnam said.
"But think about what we could do if we didn't have to overcome Obamacare," Putnam said. "Think about what we could do with Mitt Romney."
Organizers called the dinner "Gateway to Victory" and told attendees that it was an historic year with the world's eyes on Hillsborough County.
"In elections, as Hillsborough County goes, so goes Florida, as Florida goes, so goes our country," the invitations beckoned.
Yet as pumped as Hillsborough County leaders were about the convention, they fretted about how it might steer energy away from the actual political races.
"The convention is going to be a severe distraction," said Art Wood, the Hillsborough County Republican Party chairman. "People are getting fixated on it, and I'm worried they'll get burned out."