Dave Bitner could barely speak.
His voice weakened from Lou Gehrig's disease, the Republican Party of Florida's beloved chairman told fellow Republicans on a conference call Wednesday that he's stepping down because the illness has become too much.
Bitner, a former state House member and lobbyist, discovered he had the disease, also known as ALS, shortly after winning his post in a sometimes-bitter internal party race earlier this year. Bitner calmed tempers, won plaudits from former rivals and set about righting the ship in time for the 2012 election season.
"At the time I first discussed my health with you, I also made a promise that I would serve as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida only as long as I could do so with all the energy and attention this position deserves," Bitner said in a written statement that he read on the call. "I have kept that promise, and it has been the honor of a lifetime to serve you and my beloved Florida."
Bitner said he would step down Sept. 23 — in the midst of the party's Presidency 5 event featuring the party's major presidential and senatorial candidates. He called on Republicans to rally around the party's vice chairman, Lenny Curry, to become party chairman.
Bitner didn't read his entire letter. He couldn't. And it deeply saddened those who know him, love him and supported the man once known for his impressive size, deep voice and outgoing demeanor.
Alan Levine, one of Gov. Rick Scott's appointees to the Republican Executive Committee of the state party, described it in one word: "heartbreaking."
Levine said he would often see Bitner "dripping with sweat" at party events to help candidates campaign, "and he got nothing in return … just wanted to help."
Levine said it was tough to think that a man as virile as Bitner has had trouble walking and talking as he "struggled" through parts of the call with his wife, Wendy Bitner, and top Republicans.
"David spoke briefly at the beginning but his voice was clearly very weak and he couldn't say very much. He has clearly worked as hard and for as long as his health would let him. The man has given it everything he has and I am so proud of him," said Levine, who was hospital chief under Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Republican leaders from across the state echoed Levine, a hospital executive. So did the head of the Florida Democratic Party, Rod Smith.
"While we often differ on our views, I have always respected him as a talented and able spokesman on behalf of his party," Smith said in a written statement.
"Party allegiance aside, we all wish Bitner the very best in the difficult days ahead. We pray God's grace is upon him and his family."
Bitner had planned to make his announcement later, but word leaked out and was first reported Tuesday night on the Shark Tank blog. Mainstream media reporters and other bloggers then followed suit.
Bitner indicated he didn't appreciate it.
"Whether out of malice or in the interest of political posturing, some who had been entrusted with my thoughts about the future shared that information with the media. Something I would never allow to happen on my watch is for the future of the RPOF to be called into question."
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.