ORLANDO — Florida Republicans declared themselves one big happy family at their annual gathering Friday, seeking to banish any hard feelings lingering from a divisive governor's race before the high-stakes Nov. 2 election.
At this reunion of hundreds of party activists, politicians and donors, gubernatorial nominee Rick Scott is the uncle who married into the family and makes everybody a little nervous. Senate contender Marco Rubio, the former House speaker and a national star, is the favorite son. And President Barack Obama is the bitter enemy who binds them together.
"This is like the world's biggest Kumbaya party," said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party. "I didn't need a unity speech."
Virtually all the GOP establishment backed Bill McCollum over Scott, who spent $50 million of his own money to win one of the nastiest primaries the party has seen in years. In his victory speech last month, he said Tallahassee insiders would be "crying in their cocktails," but Friday many of those politicians and lobbyists rallied around Scott at Disney's Contemporary Hotel. Scott received a standing ovation.
"Primaries can be brutal, but at the end of the day people who voted for Bill McCollum will vote for the best person, and that's Rick Scott," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who as chairman of the Republican Governors Association had criticized some of Scott's attacks on McCollum.
Quietly, some party regulars doubt Scott can beat Democratic nominee Alex Sink because of the giant blemish on his business record: a $1.7 billion fine against his former company, Columbia/HCA, for Medicare fraud.
Publicly, there was nothing but praise and optimism over Scott's chances, despite a CNN-Time poll released this week that showed Scott trailing Sink by 7 points.
Gary Lee, chairman of the Lee County Republican Party and a former McCollum supporter, put it this way: "We all took an oath to support the Republican ticket. He's on the ticket."
Party leaders hope the gathering at Disney turns the page on one of the Florida GOP's most tumultuous periods: the ouster and subsequent indictment of former GOP state chairman Jim Greer; controversy over personal expenses on party-issued American Express cards; and a grass roots revolt against Gov. Charlie Crist, who ultimately dropped out of the GOP after trailing badly behind Rubio.
"I don't think I need to remind you of the obstacles we've had to overcome to get here tonight," said party chairman John Thrasher, a state senator and former lobbyist who replaced Greer early this year. "The dark period of our party's history is over, and it is gone forever."
For all the trouble and turmoil over the past year, Republicans said they feel great about their prospects. More than 300,000 more Republicans than Democrats turned out in the primaries, and growing antagonism toward Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress point to a potential Republican wave.
"I think every election in America is going to be about Barack Obama," said Orange County Republican chairman Lew Oliver. "I don't care if it's dogcatcher of Kalamazoo or governor of Florida. And that's good for Republicans, no matter how divisive our primaries were."
Scott delivered a broad assault on "Obama liberals" who he said want to strangle private enterprise with higher taxes and bureaucracy. He called for slashing $7 billion in state spending.
"Make no mistake about it," he said. "Alex Sink is an Obama liberal, and now she's trying to hide it from the voters of Florida."
At stake in November is control of the governor's office and an open U.S. Senate seat, along with continued Republican dominance of Florida's Cabinet. Republicans are also gunning for a handful of Democratic seats that could tip the balance of power in Congress.
"There's a common goal — maintaining control of what we have and gaining control of what we don't have," said former state Sen. Dan Webster, who is trying to topple Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando. "Even people who don't live in the district are ginned up about the race."
There are cracks in the unified front.
At a meeting of party leaders Friday afternoon, incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos were asked point-blank about the money they funneled from their political committees into attack ads against Scott. McCollum, a fixture in Republican politics for more than two decades, did not attend the event and has refused to endorse Scott.
"I'm really disappointed in Gen. McCollum," said Charlotte County Republican chairman Bob Starr. "I figured Bill would get behind the party and the ticket, and I believe Rick Scott would have done that for him."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beth Reinhard can be reached at breinhard@MiamiHerald.com.