TALLAHASSEE — On the second day of a Sunshine State swing, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney worked to nail down more endorsements in private meetings with political leaders.
Already he gained the next three Republicans in line to be speaker of the House: Reps. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, and Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity.
Romney later met separately with Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi and ducked out of the Capitol to avoid reporters waiting to ask him questions. Scott has said he plans to remain neutral in the very crowded Republican contest. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, also neutral so far, was among those ushered into Bondi's first-floor office.
Before their meeting, Scott was asked by reporters for his opinion on the health care change Romney signed into law when he was Massachusetts governor. After mentioning "Obamacare," Scott said, "I wouldn't put that in Florida."
Earlier Romney worked the lunch crowd at Seminole Wind, a Christian-themed Tallahassee restaurant known for its Southern cuisine. As he wolfed down a few bites of a cholesterol-laden fried chicken, Romney joked that he was trying to eat it "so nobody sees me."
Calling President Barack Obama "in over his head," Romney placed the blame for the nation's economic woes squarely on the president: chronic unemployment and rising food and gas prices and declining home values.
"Almost everything he has done has hurt the middle class," Romney said.
The scene could have been from a diner in New Hampshire or Iowa, but for the fried okra and sweet tea on the menu.
In a roundtable with a dozen small business owners and political leaders, Romney was introduced by state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. The former state Republican Party chairman said Romney will be more visible in the state because Florida has accelerated the date of its next presidential primary.
Romney said he wanted to hear the views of real people about the economy because, "There's a good shot I might become president."
Restaurant owner Tommy Bryant, who does not offer health insurance coverage to his employees, told Romney his workers often won't work overtime, because if their income rises above a certain level, they could lose their Medicaid and food stamps. Romney, nodding in agreement, said: "We penalize you if you go to work."
David Griffin, a self-employed business and political consultant and former Florida Lottery secretary, gave Romney some advice the candidate wanted to hear: "Get government out of our lives so businesses can grow and prosper."
What's gone wrong in Washington, Romney said, is that "business is somehow bad in the minds of many people in government."
As he did a day earlier at The Villages, Romney cheerfully worked crowds and posed for photos but did not take questions from reporters.
Climbing into a waiting SUV at the restaurant, Romney said Florida's decision to move up its 2012 presidential primary to Jan. 31 "is exciting."
Asked about the protesters who have occupied Wall Street for weeks, Romney replied: "I'm just trying to get myself to occupy the White House."
Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender and Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.