ORLANDO — Gov. Rick Scott said Saturday that Florida's 2012 presidential primary will be more important than any other early contest, including Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.
"None will have a greater impact on the selection of the nominee than our own primary in the Sunshine State," Scott told about 3,500 Republican activists who cast ballots at the Presidency 5 straw poll.
Calling Florida's rank-and-file Republicans "the most important people in America," Scott delivered what he said was the most important political speech of his first year in office.
With deeper ties to the tea party than the Republican Party, Scott campaigned against the state GOP during his race for governor. But Saturday, Scott asserted himself as de facto head of the Republican Party of Florida with a forceful speech that attempted to rally the troops heading into the 2012 election.
Scott was greeted like a hero in the Orange County Convention Center.
"I've paid a price in popularity for sticking to my principles," he said to a standing ovation.
Scott blamed his poor showing in polls on "liberal special interests" that support "government bailouts."
He trumpeted his pro-business agenda of lower corporate taxes and few regulations, and painted President Barack Obama as out-of-touch with Floridians trying to hold on to their jobs.
"Thanks to President Obama, China doesn't have to threaten us with missiles," Scott said. "They just have to threaten to cancel our national credit card."
Scott said the next president should "stop this insanity" of the federal debt.
"The policies of our next president will likely decide whether the United States remains the world's largest economy or whether we fall behind China and begin a slow economic slide to global irrelevance."
Scott's own role in the campaign next year is unclear. If he remains unpopular statewide, where more than half of all independents disapprove of his job performance, he could be a political liability for his party in the most competitive races.
Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, who backed Scott's opponent in the primary last year, called the speech "outstanding." He said Scott, a venture capitalist-turned-politician, was "more comfortable and relaxed" and deserved the standing ovation.
"He is reaping the benefit of being consistent and authentic," Cannon said.
Hillsborough County Republican chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush said Scott's speeches "have become much better."
"Gov. Scott is becoming the leader of our party," she said.
Michael C. Bender can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.