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Another first for Rick Scott: leading the state GOP

TALLAHASSEE — To win a primary election one year ago, Gov. Rick Scott filled the mailboxes of Republican voters with embarrassing details about alleged money laundering and theft at the state party.

Today, Scott is head of that party.

The role requires the political rookie to raise money, inspire activists and, on Saturday, deliver the keynote address at Presidency 5, a three-day political spectacle in Orlando that will demand attention from Republicans across the country.

For Scott, the event is an opportunity to define his role as Florida's top Republican.

Heading into 2012, when the GOP will try to unseat President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (the only Democrat in a statewide post), some are wringing their hands wondering if Scott is up to the task of raking in the millions of dollars needed to fund election ground games.

The state party has no finance chairman, and Scott has not headlined any major fundraisers. On the other side of the ledger, about 20 percent of all party spending during the second quarter of the year went to Scott's campaign consultants, robocalls and web ads — all aimed at improving Scott's image.

Meanwhile, Scott is pushing the party to undertake an ambitious and expensive effort of registering new voters. Republicans trail Democrats in Florida by 550,000 voters, a gap that has doubled since 2006.

The effort could bring tea party activists more neatly into the Republican fold and take away one of the advantages Obama enjoyed when he won the state in 2008.

But Republicans have long maintained majorities in the Florida House and Senate and won four consecutive governor's races despite trailing Democrats in registered voters.

"There is work the counties are supposed to be doing, but many counties are responding by targeting tea party independents and registering them Republican," said Palm Beach County GOP Chairman Sid Dinerstein. "I'm not sure at the end of the day that's going to change a lot of votes."

• • •

After a turbulent two years for Florida Republicans, Scott's role as the titular head of the Republican Party of Florida has never been more important.

Many rank-and-file activists still pine for the days of former Gov. Jeb Bush, the state's only two-term Republican governor who has been out of office for almost six years and will not attend the festivities this week because of a scheduling conflict.

The state party — once the model for parties nationwide, has struggled to find stability since the tea party rebellion pushed then-Gov. Charlie Crist out of party and set off a succession of four different party chairmen in two years, including one now facing criminal charges and another who died after battling Lou Gehrig's disease.

Scott was part of the upheaval, too. He inserted himself into governor's race, ousting the pick of many within the establishment. But since winning election, Scott has been troubled has been a consistently low approval rating, a trend that could marginalize him during the 2012 campaigns.

Republicans say Scott has learned state party issues on the fly while being consumed by assembling an administration and navigating his first legislative session.

Scott, who spent $75 million of his own fortune to finance his race, shrugged off a question about fundraising, saying only, "I've raised money for the party."

"One thing I've really focused on at the party is we have a disadvantage to the Democrats right now from the standpoint of number of registered voters," Scott said. "Long term that's going to be very important."

• • •

Scott's 20-minute Presidency 5 speech has been written since last week.

His advisers are keeping a close lid on details, but they say it will focus on Florida's role in the national political debate and that it could force presidential candidates to react.

It will not include an endorsement.

Scott admires Gov. Rick Perry's record in Texas and donated to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the 2008 Republican race. But choosing sides would violate one of Scott's core beliefs that the party should stay out of primaries.

"It's okay with me if people don't endorse people," Scott said. "I was on the opposite side of that last year."

Scott squeezed out his primary victory 13 months ago with few endorsements from Republican officials and little help from the state party, the Republican Governor's Association or GOP allies in the Tallahassee lobby corps.

"He's brought that up to me several times," said state Sen. John Thrasher, who was state party chairman last year. "But he's put it behind him. Everyone understands what's at stake."

Instead of backing a presidential contender, Scott has hyped the Presidency 5 straw poll, the mock primary election on Saturday among 3,000 Republican activists.

Scott notes the previous three winners of the Florida GOP straw poll (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole) have gone on to win the party's presidential nomination.

"I really believe whoever wins this is going to be the next president," Scott said Monday on Fox News.

One of the reasons Obama won Florida by 2.8 percentage points was a massive registration drive that helped turnout out 579,000 new voters. Nearly all of those were Hispanic or black voters, two groups Obama's team specifically targeted.

Similarly, Scott's plan is to find Floridians who favor lower taxes and oppose Obama and get them to register Republican.

The plan, if successful, could mitigate Obama's advantage next year and help boost Scott's own re-election chances in 2014.

It's also expensive.

Scott has asked other statewide Republicans to commit to raising various amounts for the registration program. Instead of high-profile fundraisers, Scott has attended dinners and other small gatherings around the state to raise money.

Scott has also helped county parties, speaking at more than 10 so-called Lincoln Day dinners and other county fundraising events.

"The governor is committed to making sure the party has the resources to win," said John Rood, a former state party finance chairman who Scott appointed to the state party executive committee. "It's not going to be an issue."

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Another first for Rick Scott: leading the state GOP 09/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 7:06pm]
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