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Grass roots Florida Republicans fear massive convention snub over primary dispute

Imagine hosting a big, ritzy party and being told to sit in the basement as it kicked off.

That's pretty much the fear of grass roots Florida Republican leaders as they consider repercussions for the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa given legislative leaders' seeming insistence on holding Florida's presidential primary earlier than allowed.

National GOP leaders punishing their most loyal foot soldiers in the state they can't afford to lose? Sounds crazy, but it absolutely could happen.

Think of Florida party activists assigned to distant hotels in north Pinellas, rather than blocks from the St. Pete Times Forum in downtown Tampa for the Aug. 27-30, 2012, event.

Or the host delegation seated somewhere to the rear of Guam's delegation. Or Floridians getting fewer floor passes than Republicans from Oregon. Almost certainly, Florida's delegation would be lopped in half, from about 116 delegates to 58.

"The Legislature is going to do what they want to do, and they're going to do what they deem best for themselves. But for the party's rank and file, we work very hard for a chance to go to the convention," said Pinellas state committee member Tony DiMatteo, who noted that the biggest perk for local party leaders is picking convention delegates. "There are going to be a lot of disappointed Florida Republicans if we lose half our delegates."

The national parties have agreed that only select states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — can hold presidential nominating elections before March 6, and states that violate that schedule will be penalized. Florida Republicans more or less got away with busting the schedule in 2008 and have plans for a Jan. 31 primary in 2012, but Republican National Committee members have little patience to cut the Sunshine State slack twice in a row.

"We will enforce the rules agreed to by all states with respect to the primary and caucus calendar,'' said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski, who emphasized the convention will be in Tampa no matter what happens with the primary.

Polk County state committee member Linda Ivell said Republicans need to rev up the grass roots base in Florida as much as possible in 2012, and the best way to do that is ensure as much access to the convention as possible.

"I understand the philosophy of moving the primary up, but I'm kind of a stickler for the rules," Ivell said. "What's most important is making sure the grass roots get to participate in the convention. What do we get for breaking the rules?"

Polk County Republicans recently passed a resolution calling for Florida not to buck the national party: "... WHEREAS, it is abundantly clear that Republican National Committee fully intends to penalize the Florida delegation for failure to follow the rules by loss of delegates, loss of guest passes, unfavorable seating, unfavorable lodging . . ."

National party leaders want an orderly nominating process, which focuses early on relatively small states where grass roots campaigning has a chance to compete against massive campaign accounts.

Florida's legislative leaders say that's fine, but they want to be fifth and not lumped together with a host of other states holding an election on the same day. That means keeping Florida's election in January or possibly February, even though the RNC says no state except the anointed four can hold elections before March 6 without penalties.

The RNC's chief of staff, Jeff Larson, is scheduled to meet with legislative staffers today in Tallahassee to try to settle the convention dispute. However, there is little indication there's common ground to be found.

Some grass roots officials agree with the hard line Florida's elected leaders are taking.

"I would like to publicly applaud the Florida Legislature for having the (fortitude) once again to defy an RNC-endorsed/coerced national primary electoral 'system' that gives wildly disproportionate influence in the selection of our nominee (and potentially our next president) to a collection of syrup farmers and ethanol freaks in New Hampshire and Iowa,'' Orange County Republican chairman Lew Oliver wrote in a recent e-mail to party officials.

Before the 2008 election, the Republican-controlled Legislature moved Florida's presidential primary from March to January, arguing that America's biggest and most diverse battleground state needed more say in picking presidential nominees.

As punishment for violating a carefully laid-out calendar, national Democrats stripped Florida of all its delegates (and Democratic candidates boycotted the January primary), while Republicans promised to strip half of Florida's delegates.

In the end, all 114 Republican delegates were seated on the convention floor in St. Paul, but half of them were nonvoting "honored guests" who could not vote. Even that compromise antagonized members of the RNC from other states who complied with the calendar and made clear that in 2012 the rules would be firm.

"We've had a lot of discussion about what the rules were going to be and we have the rules. Certainly Florida is a very significant state and we're very excited to be taking the convention to Tampa-St. Petersburg,'' said Republican National Committee member Alec Poitevint, who is chairman of the RNC's Committee on Arrangements putting together the Tampa convention.

He added: "The Republican National Committee will follow its rules."

Times staff writer Alex Leary and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Grass roots Florida Republicans fear massive convention snub over primary dispute 04/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 4:54pm]
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