TAMPA — Okay, Mitt Romney, it's time to step up for Florida.
Florida Republicans revived your candidacy in the Jan. 31 primary. They've donated more than $7 million to your 2012 presidential campaign. They're hosting your nomination bash at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. And without Florida's 29 electoral votes it's nearly impossible for you to win the White House.
So now Florida Republicans are expecting you, Mr. Presumptive Nominee, to lean on the Republican National Committee to ease off Florida's penalties for breaking party rules by holding a January primary. They want at least 99 Floridians seated at the Aug. 27-30 Republican National Convention in Tampa, though the RNC has lopped Florida's delegation in half to 50.
"We've asked the Romney people to go to the RNC,'' said Peter Feaman, a Republican national committeeman from Boca Raton. "If we can't have all our delegates, can you at least seat all of us and allow us in the convention?"
No other swing state has as many electoral votes as Florida, and with that mega battleground status comes a hefty sense of entitlement. That explains why so many party activists gathered in Tampa for the state GOP's quarterly meeting this weekend sounded utterly confident they ultimately will escape the strict penalties promised by the RNC.
On Saturday, party leaders approved a full slate of 99 delegates and 96 alternates, two from each of the state's 25 congressional districts and the rest at-large choices by the party chairman. If the RNC sticks to its penalties, the state party in June or July will revise the list to designate the 50 official delegates.
"The reality is Mitt Romney is not going to have Florida be penalized. We're the battleground of all battleground states," predicted A.J. Matthews, a state committeeman from Hillsborough and a delegate representing congressional District 11.
Orange County GOP chairman Lew Oliver agreed: "There's an expectation that Mitt Romney will fix it. I would guess what they do is allow 99 people to be credentialed and be able to go into the convention but not necessarily cast a vote."
That's what happened four years ago, when the state party also violated the officially sanctioned primary calendar by setting Florida's primary in January. Ultimately all 114 Florida delegates had prime seats in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., but half of them were designated nonvoting "honored guests."
The Florida GOP activists' expectations for the Tampa convention put former Massachusetts Gov. Romney in an awkward position. To press the RNC to indemnify Florida is sure to antagonize hundreds of party activists from other states who complied with the rules though they would have preferred to have earlier primaries.
The Romney campaign declined to comment on the matter Saturday.
Nor is it certain that the presumptive nominee can even persuade the RNC to back off. Florida is a now a two-time offender, and in January the RNC's rules committee made clear how annoyed it was with Florida's primary date. The panel tacked on additional penalties for the convention's host state, including fewer guest passes, "reduced priority" hotels and reduced priority floor seats.
"The rules committee has made it clear the rules will be enforced," RNC spokesman Matt Connelly said when asked about the potential for mercy on Florida's delegation.
GOP activists have been joking about the Florida delegation being assigned to a hotel close to the Georgia line, but their commute should not be excessive. Every hotel blocked off for the convention is in Pinellas County or Hillsborough County except for Saddlebrook Resort Tampa on the Pasco County line, according to Ken Jones, president of the Tampa Bay Host Committee.
Florida Republican Party chairman Lenny Curry said he remains optimistic that a compromise will be worked out.
"Penalizing the grass roots because of something the Legislature did doesn't make sense. (A legislative-led committee set the primary date.) We need these people in the trenches as involved and engaged and motivated as possible,'' said Curry, noting that he continues to make the case to the RNC. "If you push on a wall long enough eventually you get through, or you find a way to go around it or over it. But I can't tell you it's moved much so far."
In a state with more than 4 million registered Republican voters the access that a few dozen activists have to the convention is hardly make or break for the election. The local party officials who tend to earn the delegate slots can make a lot of noise, but the truth is many of them spend more time attending functions than actually knocking on doors, manning phone banks and getting candidates elected.
Republican leaders in the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott knew of the promise for penalties by setting an early primary, but they insisted it was much more important to ensure America's biggest battleground state had significant influence on picking the nominee. Romney handily won Florida's primary, though the bruising campaign continued in full force for more than two months before he was acknowledged as the inevitable nominee.
"People are coming to the realization now that a lot them are going to be left out of the convention and they're not going to be able to participate in it as much as they wanted,'' said Pinellas County state committeeman Tony DiMatteo. "It was sold that the penalties would be worth it because Florida would be the determining state. In effect, (grass roots activists) took one for the team and then Florida was not the determining state."
Others suggested that even without floor passes the convention in Tampa will be a blast for rank-and-file Republicans.
"Who wants to be on the inside? If you've been to a convention, you know it's so crowded and claustrophobic in there, and there's going to be so much to do all day long on the outside of there — symposiums, grass roots training, big speeches," said Cindy Graves of Jacksonville, president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women.
Among other things, her group is working with Saks Fifth Avenue on a fashion show for 300 women.
Gov. Scott on Saturday predicted Florida will be accommodated for one reason: "You have to win Florida to win the presidency."
But Sharon Day, national committeewoman from Fort Lauderdale and co-chair of the RNC, was not as optimistic.
"I never say never, but it will be tough," said Day, noting that Florida is a two-time primary calendar offender and the vast majority of state parties complied.
"They're responsible for their actions," she said of the state party. "And we're a party that believes in personal responsibility."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]