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As presidential race soon shifts to Florida, Rick Perry revs up efforts

How do you start from nothing and quickly rev up a serious presidential campaign in a state as big as Florida?

We're about to see Rick Perry try.

The Republican presidential race suddenly looks like a three-person battle between Texas Gov. Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But as the focus of the contest soon shifts to Florida, Perry and Bachmann are invisible in the state while Romney has an expansive political network still in place since his campaign here four years ago.

Grass roots activists and veteran political consultants say they see no sign of Bachmann trying to organize a campaign in Florida, though on Aug. 27 she plans to attend a tea party rally in The Villages and then a Florida Family Policy Council dinner in Orlando. And the campaign told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday night that it has no plans to compete in a mock election planned by the state GOP next month.

It's a different story with Perry, who formally jumped into the race Saturday.

Perry campaign officials are talking to some of the top Republican strategists, including former George W. Bush Florida 2004 chief Brett Doster and the Tallahassee team of Randy Enwright, Jim Rimes and Rich Heffley. The late entry into the contest has also contacted many of the state's top money-raisers and found some keen interest.

"You will see quite a number of top fundraisers come on board for Perry. I've talked to many of my Republican friends in Florida, and there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for Perry," said St. Petersburg doctor Akshay "A.K." Desai, a top GOP fundraiser helping host Perry's first Florida fundraiser, tentatively planned for Sept. 13 somewhere in the Tampa Bay area. "Some of the people who signed up with other candidates, I think you will see moving to Perry."

Local party leaders in Florida say they struggle to communicate with anyone in the Bachmann campaign but Perry's people are talking about a vigorous Florida effort.

If they want to seriously compete, it better happen soon.

State GOP leaders are aiming to make Florida the fifth state in the nominating contest — after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — but Florida will be in the spotlight in September.

Two of the next three GOP debates will be held in Florida, Sept. 12 in Tampa and Sept. 22 in Orlando, the latter as part of the Florida GOP's "Presidency 5" three-day event. On Sept. 23 most of the major Republican candidates will speak at the regional Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Orlando, prior to the P5 straw poll Sept. 24.

But that doesn't necessarily mean prominent Florida Republicans are ready to embrace a candidate.

"Romney's 100 percent competent to face what we need economically. Can he get elected? I don't think so," said Mark Guzzetta, a former national finance chairman for Romney. "Obama's got to self-destruct a lot more before Romney becomes viable."

Likewise, former Republican National Committee Finance chairman Al Hoffman said Perry's entry does little to nudge him off the sidelines.

"It remains to be seen whether he can get Republicans to coalesce behind him," Hoffman said of Perry.

Other than Romney, who has had a strong Florida team in place since 2007, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had built the strongest Florida operation. He dropped out of the race Sunday after a weak performance in the Iowa straw poll, and it's unclear so far where the Florida Pawlenty team goes.

"If 2010 has taught us anything in Florida, it's that nothing is for certain,'' said Pawlenty fundraiser Ann Herberger, who doesn't discount the potential of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, basing his campaign in Orlando. "I still think the race is wide open. In fact, what if somebody else gets in? The field is soft enough that there could be somebody else getting in this race."

Meanwhile, Perry volunteers are gearing up in Florida even before the campaign is ready for "Presidency 5" and CPAC.

"There's an enormous amount of goodwill and work ethic, the kind we haven't seen in years, ready to go for Perry. … We're forced to meet with people and gather contact information, even before the campaign infrastructure is in place. Once his message gets out I think Romney's a cooked goose,'' said Wes Maddox a Tampa GOP activist and former Texas A&M classmate of Perry's.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

How they stack up in Florida

Mitt Romney: Has a massive Florida fundraising team — everybody from the Sembler family of St. Petersburg to former Bush heavyweights Ned Siegel and Zach Zachariah. Still, his stronghold is in GOP-rich northeast Florida, where Jacksonville-area money men including Tom Petway, John Thrasher and John Rood are helping him.

Michele Bachmann: Has plenty of grass-roots supporters and small donors in Florida, but so far appears invisible among the top-tier money raisers in the Sunshine State and barely has visited, either. On Aug. 27, she will attend a tea party rally in The Villages and a Florida Family Policy Council dinner in Orlando.

Rick Perry: Get ready for a slew of Perry endorsements. So far they include uber-money raiser A.K. Desai of St. Petersburg, state Rep. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and state Sen. Don Gaetz and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, of the Panhandle, but many more are in the works.

Florida in focus

Sept. 12: CNN/Tea Party Express GOP presidential debate at Tampa Fairgrounds.

Sept. 22-24: Presidency V, the Republican Party of Florida event in Orlando.

Sept. 22: A nationally televised Fox News debate from Presidency V.

Sept. 23: Florida CPAC, huge conservative gathering featuring speeches from all of the major candidates and other conservative stars.

Sept. 24: Presidency V "straw poll" where delegates can vote for their preferred presidential nominee.

As presidential race soon shifts to Florida, Rick Perry revs up efforts 08/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 9:13am]
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